Archive for October 2007

Wednesday Practice at the Piers

October 31, 2007

Chris Clark arrived in town in time to join his teammates last night, and he and Alexander Semin were both out on the sheet during today’s Caps practice at Chelsea Piers. Tom Poti did not practice today and will not play against New York on Thursday.

I chatted with Clark after practice, and here’s what he said:

About the Alex Ovechkin shot that hit hm in the ear, opening a wound that required more than 60 stitches to close:
“Didn’t see it. I didn’t even know it was the puck until afterwards. I thought it was a stick. I was battling before that with I think [Vancouver defenseman] Bieksa and ended up clipping my tooth behind the net. And then I went to the front of the net. I thought it was just a battle with him and didn’t realize until afterwards that it was the puck.

“It just dropped me to my knees, just right down. I didn’t really know at that point that it was the puck until the guys were around me and telling me.”

On whether he had watched a replay of the shot.
“Yes. I wasn’t really facing [Ovechkin], which is good probably. At that point, I was trying to get to the front of the net. I wasn’t facing the shot, which is probably lucky. Kozzie dipped his shoulder a little bit and it went over him.”

On how he feels after praticing today:
“There’s no real pain there. The helmet is a little tight. It’s still swollen in that area, so the helmet is a little tight. Other than that, it wasn’t too bad.

On when he’ll be back in the lineup:
“I don’t know if I’ll play tomorrow. I’ll skate again tomorrow, and we’ll figure it out day to day.”

The guys had fun at last night’s team dinner, with rookies Nicklas Backstrom, Tomas Fleischmann, Jeff Schultz and Dave Steckel footing the bill. Schultz and Steckel provided levity, dressing up as the lead characters from the movie, “Blades of Glory.”

“I was talking with [Matt Bradley] the other week and I kind of wanted to do something,” says Steckel, “whether it was to mock guys or something. I forgot that it was Halloween. So me and Schultzie went to a costume store and picked out the best ones that we thought would add the most punch for the night. We figured that would be it.”

Schultz escaped Hershey’s rookie dinner last season.

“Actually last year I missed their rookie dinner because I was up here [with Washington] when they had theirs,” says Schultz. “I lucked out last year but I made up for it this year.

“The guys said that being Halloween we should go find costumes. Stecks and I after practice went and found a costume shop. We thought it would be funny to combine our costumes. We saw these and it was hilarious. Everybody was pretty impressed that in the amount of time we had that we found something like this.”

The proprietor of Dump and Chase feels that the location and cost of the dinner is proprietary information. Your mileage may vary, and someone else may well see fit to publish it. Suffice it to say, it was not cheap. Steckel planned ahead, making sure his credit card could handle the load.

“I made the call earlier in the day and made sure it was all right,” he said, looking squarely at some of his co-payees. “I had no problems. It was good. It was a good time.”

Schultz believes that he and Steckel’s decision to dress up made the rest of their evening a bit easier than it was for the European rookies, who showed up sans costume.

“I think the guys kind of got back at them for not dressing up,” Schultz says. “It seemed that as the night went on they took it a little bit easier on us for dressing up.”

“I think it went pretty well,” assesses Steckel. “I thought we looked great, personally. We got a lot of comments when we walked into the restaurant and everyone looked at us. I think it went well. The guys were happy.”

Ovechkin had a photo shoot with Sports Illustrated after practice today, and he made his way over to the NHL Store afterwards. I accompanied defensemen Mike Green, Milan Jurcina and Shaone Morrisonn over to the NHL Store immediately after practice. The guys were guests on “NHL Live” with co-hosts Don La Greca and E.J. Hradek. After the show, we browsed the Store and were given a tour of the NHL’s new office space, which is in the same building. Great spot. I highly encourage any and all of you to check it out if you’re in town. The Store is located at the southwest corner of 47th St. and 6th. Av.

Now, a few of us are getting ready to make the hop down to Newark for tonight’s game at “The Rock” between the Devils and the Lightning. We’re anxious to check out the Devils’ new digs, which just opened last Saturday.

Oh, and Tim Robbins was in the house today at Chelsea Piers again, too, playing pickup hockey. Good work if you can get it.

Last Stop, New York

October 30, 2007

Last night’s win in Toronto was a tonic for a Caps team that had lost six of seven and three straight on the road. I don’t think the Caps have played all that badly since the Oct. 13 loss in Buffalo, but the NHL hasn’t gotten around to awarding style points yet. Check that. We still have the shootout.

But seriously, anytime you can win a game when you’re missing a pair of 30-goal scorers from the previous season (including one who happens to be your captain) and you’re missing your top defenseman in terms of ice time, you’ll take it. And the Caps did, earning their most lopsided road win in nearly a decade.

We had a night in Toronto afterwards to enjoy it, and we hopped the team plane for New York this morning. After landing at LaGuardia, we headed directly to Chelsea Piers where the Caps skated hard and practiced hard for about an hour. That 7-1 win over the Leafs is in the rear-view, and this team needs to use it as a springboard to grander things, in my opinion. We’ve seen the fits and starts, the “win a couple, lose three” stretches over the past two seasons. It would be nice to see this team get on a roll, but a healthy team may be needed to take that step.

By the way, Chelsea Piers also houses the studio/set for the TV show “Law and Order.” And shortly after we arrived at the practice rink today, a group of men playing pickup hockey came off the ice. Among them: actor and Rangers season ticket holder Tim Robbins. He stopped to chat briefly with the Caps’ Donald Brashear before going into the locker room to change and shower.

Tom Poti and Alexander Semin both skated today. Poti skated Saturday and Monday as well, and to me he did not look significantly closer to a return to the lineup when I saw him today. Semin skated for the first time since re-injuring his ankle in Saturday’s loss at St. Louis, but didn’t participate in all of the drills. Chris Clark is reportedly en route from D.C., so we could see him tomorrow when the team practices again in preparation for Thursday’s contest with the Rangers. We’ll see how those players look tomorrow, and try to get an assessment of their possible availability for Thursday.

Peter Bondra’s retirement didn’t take anyone associated with the team by surprise. Bondra was holding out hope of a comeback, but once he realized that a contract offer was not forthcoming, he made the decision to get involved with the management of the national team in his native Slovakia. It’s great to see him still involved with the game, because he so obviously derived so much joy from it over the years, and he gave so much joy back to the fans in the D.C. area as well. He was a great player here for so many years, and he left many great memories for all of you fans and his teammates as well. Cherish them.

I’m working on a little piece on No. 12 for caps.com and should have it ready by Wednesday. With all the buses, planes and travel from here to there plus last night’s game, we haven’t had much time to catch our breath here in the last 24 hours. We’ll get a bit of that starting tonight. The team is going out together for its annual rookie dinner, and the Caps will have another practice and a morning skate to get ready for the Rangers. Several players are making appearances in the area tomorrow afternoon, and because I will be helping out along those lines we’re going to combine tomorrow’s scheduled Capitals Report with Thursday’s Pre-Cap and come to you live from New York on Thursday afternoon at 2 p.m.

Bondra Retires

October 29, 2007

I think we all knew this day was coming, but today former Caps great Peter Bondra made it official when he announced his retirement from the NHL as a player to become the general manager of Slovakia’s National Team. All of us who know him and who watched him on the ice for so many seasons wish him the best of everything in his new endeavor.

Thanks to those of you who left comments and who sent emails regarding this news.

Monday Morning Skate

October 29, 2007

We got into town here in Toronto yesterday. We went to the hotel, dropped off our bags, and then I accompanied Nate Ewell and Olie Kolzig over to the XM Studios. Olie was slated to be the first guest on the premier edition of a new XM show, “Hockey Confidential.” A car was waiting to take us over to the studio, and when we arrived host Scott Laughlin and a studio audience was all sert for Olie to start.

Nate and I sat in the audience and watched as Laughlin and Olie chatted. It was a terrific interview of about one hour in length, with a couple short breaks in between. The show promises to be a terrific one, and it’s something XM hopes to run monthly. We’ll let you know when the Olie show will air, and you won’t want to miss it. I’ve known Olie for about 12 years and there were a couple of things he casually tossed out there that I did not know about at all. It’s going to make for very good radio.

He talked about goalie fights, scoring a goal as a goalie in juniors, his foundation (Athletes Against Autism), playing for the German National Team, his boyhood travels, the Caps, Alex Ovechkin and plenty of other topics. The XM folks were tremendous, and it was terrific being able to meet Scott, Mike Ross and Dan Blakeley.

The only downside of the excursion was missing out on the Hall of Fame trip. The team went over to the Hockey Hall of Fame en masse on Sunday afternoon, but by the time we had returned from XM the tour had been completed. I will talk to a few of the players to find out how that went.

I’m typing this from the lower bowl of the Air Canada Centre, where the Leafs are finishing up their morning skate. A few of us are sitting here sipping Tim Horton’s coffee and discussing the public address announcers around the NHL. Joe Beninati is capable of spot-on imitations of all of them, so we’re not lacking for entertainment here.

The Caps will be on the ice in another 30 minutes or so, and I’ll be back later with more news. Pre-Cap airs at 3:30 today as well.

Saturday Night in St. Louis

October 27, 2007

My fancy recording device went on the fritz this morning, so I had no way of documenting the conversations I took part in at the morning skate in St. Louis here today. I scrawled a few notes, and later replaced my recorder. I’ll work backwards, starting with this morning.

Alexander Semin was nonplussed by his contract extension, saying he mostly left it to his agent. Glen Hanlon had this to say: “We’re happy to have him signed up. He’s a big part of our offense. He’s one of the young players we think makes us exciting.

“We’re happy because he’s making a commitment to us. We made a commitment to him but he’s making a commitment here. On all the teams when you’re making a substantial amount of money, with that comes other responsibilities. We want him to feel responsible for us to take the next step for success. We don’t want him to look around and say, ‘It’s up to Kozlov,’ or ‘It’s up to Ovechkin.’ It’s up to him. He’s got to be part of this and play a bigger role in this.”

Hanlon was asked if he believed that Semin could score 50 goals in the NHL.

“I think Alexander Semin could score 60 goals, but I don’t want to see him be a minus-25,” said Hanlon. “To me, I think you have to learn how to play all systems both offensively and defensively and I think you have to be responsible and I think you can’t make common sense mistakes on the ice. I’m not worried about him scoring 50 goals. I want to see him be like Ovie, where when it comes to protecting a lead with a minute to go, I want Alexander Semin on the ice. But you don’t give the most important shift of the game to people unless they prove to you that they can do it.”

As is generally the case with morning skates, today’s twirl was optional. And as is the case with most morning skates, more than half the team took the ice this morning. Even after having pulled in here in the wee hours of Saturday morning.

Chris Clark’s ear laceration prompted Hanlon to move teenaged rookie Nicklas Backstrom back to his natural center position for tonight’s game with the Blues.

“We’ve worked very closely with Nick,” said Hanlon. “We’ve talked along the way. He has no problem whatsoever playing left wing. I’ve reassured him that there is going to come a time where he is going to start to play center this year. He may play a bit of it and go back to wing and then go back and forth until we make a full-time switch.”

Hanlon was asked about the most important part of a center’s responsibilities.

“Your down-low coverage in your own zone,” he declared. “To be able to play from the hash marks down, that’s all the center man’s responsibility. And it’s a huge part of the game and it’s the most cirtical part because you’re closest to your net. You can be a winger and make a mistake in that four or five feet in front of the net or in the corner. So that’s the biggest difference. And face-offs, we likely won’t see him on defensive zone face-offs which really hurts, because he might play 24 or 25 shifts tonight but his minutes will be down because he will miss a little bit from each face-off in our zone.”

Dave Steckel will take the draws on the left side and Viktor Kozlov will take the face-offs on the right side of the ice. Although Backstrom is 19 and a rookie in the NHL< he has more of a defensive consciousness than most players of his age and with his experience.

“Some countries don’t play defensive zone coverage the same way we do,” said Hanlon. “He said they play the very same way we play in North America, so that’s not going to be an adjustment, which is huge. From what I’ve seen in some of the other countries, especially Russia, they don’t play the same way. Russia is more man-on-man. You just find a guy and skate all over the zone with him. Here, it’s not quite the same.”

Blues coach Andy Murray creates an intimate atmosphere for his game morning media discussions. He sits in a folding chair, and the media members form a semi-circle around him. It’s kind of intimate, and he makes eye contact with everyone in the half circle as he addresses the various questions.

He was asked about Ovechkin, as virtually every opposing coach is, but he reserved his highest praise for other Capital forwards. Murray noted that Michael Nylander was every bit as dangerous as Ovechkin, in his opinion, and that the Rangers are certainly missing him. He inquired as to Chris Clark’s health, and observed that he believes Clark is the “best dollar value in the league.”

Murray reserved his highest praise for Steckel, a player who was a Los Angeles draftee during Murray’s days as the Kings coach. Murray talked about what a good guys Steckel is, and how hard he worked to get where he is now. And according to Murray, “Right now he is as good a shutdown center as there is in the league.” High praise, indeed.

Poti Out Again

October 27, 2007

Caps defenseman Tom Poti skated this morning but his groing injury has not improved sufficiently enough to permit his return to the lineup.

Chris Clark does not have a concussion, but he does have a lot of stitches in his left ear. Said a team spokesman: “We’re going to look at bringing him into Toronto.”

Clark’s injury means some lineup tweaks will take place tonight. Nicklas Backstrom will center a line between Alex Ovechkin and Viktor Kozlov. Tomas Fleischmann will return to the lineup, skating the left side of a line with Michael Nylander and Alexander Semin.

For the Blues, teenaged 2007 first-rounder David Perron will get a sweater tonight, playing in his second NHL game.

I’ll have some more details on some of these developments and some other observations after I get back to the hotel.

Semin Signed, and Other News

October 27, 2007

The Capitals and Alexander Semin have come to terms on a two-year contract extension. The deal will pay the Russian left wing $4.2 million in 2008-09 and $5 million in 2009-10. The salary cap hit will be $4.6 million for the term.

I’m typing this from the lower bowl of the Scottrade Center. The ice is being resurfaced, and the Caps are in a team meeting at the moment. Washington will come out shortly, but the skate is an optional. St. Louis has already skated and Blues head coach Andy Murray just held court with the media. More on all this, and update on Chris Clark’s status and some lineup info in a bit.

Pre-Game Quotes

October 26, 2007

Comments from Caps coach Glen Hanlon prior to tonight’s game with Vancouver:

On the new look power play:
“We were definitely going to make some changes on it. Our feeling when we had the meetings that if weren’t in 15th place and we weren’t quite happy we’d tinker a bit with moving some people around. But when you’re sitting when we are we felt it was time for a … radical was the word you used [to Corey Masisak], I would say ‘dramatic’ is a better word. With Tommy [Poti] out, it leaves us two sort of natural power play defensemen. We have more forwards than we do D, so it makes some sense.

“Corey asked if this was modeled after Carolina. No. We’ve had five [forwards] before. You have to have the right people to do these types of things. This was more determined by needing to make a change and then Tommy not playing.

“Hopefully that’s a starting gate for a horse race. I’m not trying to be funny. You need rotation, you need movement and the [right-handed vs. left-handed] sticks work out. If it works out that Ovie slides down and he’s low and Nylander is up top … the good thing about Carolina is when you’ve got five guys back there you don’t have to worry about having a defenseman back and a forward up. Maybe it will make it a little less predictable. Like [Carolina coach] Peter [Laviolette] says, ‘Sometimes you’ve just got to close your eyes and hope for the best.’ I’m not going to use hope; I’m going to use prayer.”

On John Erskine replacing Tom Poti:
“Johnny’s in. He’s chomping at the bit to play. Johnny had a real good start for us and we made the switch to Schultzie because it was part of our plan to have him here. It was Johnny’s job then to wait for an opportunity to play. He has worked hard and he is ready to go.”

On whether Erskine would play alongside Mike Green, as Poti had prior to his injury:
“Yeah, we don’t want to break the pairs up. Mo and Juice have been fine. And then we’ve felt that Brian Pothier’s best games of the year have been with Schultzie, so there seems to be a comfort level there and they seem to be playing well.

On having all lefty-righty defensive pairs after being right-handed heavy the last couple seasons:
“It really does help. Guys are comfortable with it. When we talked to all the guys before the season, Tom Poti was the only one who said in his meeting that he had played the other side with no problem. He has played a lot on the right. He is the only that if we were going to make a switch, we’d do it. We’ve tried to keep them left and right. Morrisonn would be the most obvious one, too, because of his skating ability. It’s easier to keep pucks in on the offensive line. There are a lot of advantages for having your sticks in the right spot and on the natural side.

On whether the team had considered activating Steve Eminger from IR to replace Poti:
“It’s because of the left stick situation that we just talked about. We felt it would be easier just to [put Erskine in]. One of the other things is that Greenie has had some good games with physical players and we felt that was kind of a natural, too.”

On the checking line and Morrisonn and Jurcina’s performance in Wednesday’s win over Tampa Bay:
“It was a group of five. It was just a plan. We’ve done things where you break up the checking line and the checking D and split them up. We felt that we would gang up. The reason I did that is because their top two groups play so much early on that I wanted to get one constant and then be able to allow Ovechkin’s group or Nylander’s group to just play no matter who came up. So that was the reason we did that. So we ganged up all five shutdown people against Lecavalier and St. Louis. And they did a good job.

“I watched Vancouver and Detroit [on Wednesday], and the Sedins went against Datsyuk head-to-head and Draper played against somebody else. There are all different ways of going about it; we just happen to like having a checking line. But not at the expense [of our offensive players]. I don’t want to see Ovechkin play 16 minutes and Boyd Gordon play 22. There’s a feel to that that I don’t think is right. Sometimes you just have to go out and do the job against the other team’s top line.”

On Luongo’s prior success against Washington:
“I’d like to think that our team is better than it was two years ago when he was coming in here. That’s our rallying cry with most of the teams when we are presented with some negative statistics. Well yeah, that did happen. But we are what we are in 2007-08 and let’s not look back.”

Poti is Out

October 26, 2007

Caps defenseman Tom Poti is day-to-day with a groin injury and will not play tonight against Vancouver. John Erskine steps in alongside Mike Green for the Capitals tonight. Lukas Krajicek is hurt and will not play for the Canucks; Alexander Edler will replace him.

I’ll have some quotes from Glen Hanlon’s pre-game presser in a bit.

Power Surge

October 26, 2007

All the talk in the media lounge before tonight’s game is about the Caps’ new power play look, one that features five forwards as first reported this morning by The Washington Times‘ Corey Masisak.

Some are embracing this change while others are expressing reservation over the format that features forwards Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin on the points with Viktor Kozlov, Michael Nylander and Chris Clark up front.

The Capitals are 4-for-39 on the power play this season for an anemic success rate of just 10.3%. You’ve got to go back to last Feb. 27 for the last game in which Washington authored multiple power play tallies in the same game. Since that date, the Caps have unofficially converted 14 of 117 power play chances, a success rate of 12%. More to the point, they’ve fashioned an underwhelming 8-16-3 record during that stretch.

So it’s easy to see the level of frustration that has set in by this point. The Carolina Hurricanes employ five forwards (Jeff Hamilton, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney, Corey Stillman and Rod Brind’Amour) on their power play setup, to good effect. The Canes are currently tied for the NHL lead with 14 power play goals, and their 23.7% extra-man success rate is third in the NHL.

The Caps obviously would like to close out the homestand with a win, especially since they must play six of their next seven and eight of their next 10 games on the road. Some of those visits are to arenas where the Caps have not had much success lately. Washington begins a three-game road trip in St. Louis tomorrow night. Washington’s last win over the Blues in St. Louis was 11 years ago tonight, a 6-4 triumph on Oct. 26, 1996. Jason Allison scored twice and Dale Hunter supplied the game-winner in that one.

The only two NHL arenas in which the Caps have a longer drought are Edmonton (Feb. 7, 1996) and San Jose (Oct. 30, 1993). The Caps have won in Minnesota, but never in the Wild’s Xcel Center home.


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