Archive for October 2006

They’re Back

October 31, 2006

Okay, so it’s after lunch on Tuesday now. Things have a way of getting away from you on the road. Time is short and the travel takes its toll, too. But I took good notes and I have a good memory, so I will get around to compiling a recap of what I witnessed on and off the ice over the last week. First, off to the streets with the kids for some candy.

Quickly, it was a very satisfying trip. That always makes for a quick and pleasant plane ride home, and the D.C. area weather was a nice treat too. I was on my way back to Baltimore when I learned that the Caps waived Rico Fata today. I’m a little surprised, because I thought he had played well enough in the early going. On the other hand, everything I’m hearing from my friends in Hershey, everything I saw during last spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs, and everything I read between the lines of what’s going on behind the scenes in Capsland tells me that Tomas Fleischmann will be wearing the blue, black and bronze very soon.

If he comes to Washington and the coaching staff can carve out a meaningful spot/role for him, the Capitals could find themselves with three scoring lines of varying degrees of potency. Last night the Caps had one line with Dainius Zubrus between Chris Clark and Alex Ovechkin, another with Kris Beech centering Alexander Semin and Matt Pettinger, and a third with Donald Brashear and Richard Zednik flanking Boyd Gordon. That last one might not throw much fear into opponents on paper, but it was a pretty effective trio in Calgary last night.

If you add Fleischmann to the mix, there is even more potential for offense. Finding a role and a regular spot for Flash could be the tricky part, and it may take a deal to ease the logjam on the wings (which would be even worse if Ben Clymer was still among the forwards on the depth chart). In the pre-lockout days, November was a somewhat busy month for the trade business. Bobby Gould came to the Caps in November. Chris Simon joined the Caps in November and left in November. Ditto Andrei Nikolishin. It’s a time when general managers have seen their team play a dozen or more games. That’s enough time to get a handle on what kind of team they’ve got, what kind of holes they’ve got, and how they might best fill them.

Before anyone starts with the “Vogel says the Caps are gonna make a trade” stuff, here’s the fine print: I know absolutely nothing here; I have no inside info of a pending deal nor whiffs of any actual trade winds blowing. I’m just saying.


Lineup Tweaks in Calgary

October 30, 2006

Just came back from the morning skate, and the Washington lineup will have some adjustments tonight. Kris Beech is back in; the Caps were looking to just get him a night off in Edmonton. He’ll skate between Alexander Semin and Matt Pettinger. Brooks Laich will skate the left side of a line with Brian Sutherby and Matt Bradley. Boyd Gordon will play between Donald Brashear and Richard Zednik.

Caps coach Glen Hanlon remarked that he thought Saturday’s game in Edmonton was Bryan Muir’s best as a Capital. As a result, Muir will stay in the lineup as Mike Green’s partner. Jamie Heward is back in: he will play with Ben Clymer. Steve Eminger, Jakub Klepis and Rico Fata are the scratches tonight.

More after lunch.


October 29, 2006

The teams are on the ice for the pregame warm-ups as I type this. Alex Ovechkin didn’t think much of the ice in Vancouver, but he should appreciate the surface here in Edmonton, generally known as the NHL’s best sheet. Outside the rink, there is ice and snow. We got in around 2:30 a.m. local time, and it was snowing pretty good when we arrived. There was no skate today; the Caps had a team meal at the hotel this afternoon followed by a meeting.

Talking with Glen Hanlon before the game, the lineup changes are not at all punitive in nature. After two tough road games and the travel here overnight, it’s good to get some fresh legs in the lineup. The Beech for Laich swap should give the Caps a bit more speed against one of the league’s swiftest outfits. What remains to be seen is how the lines will shake out. With Beech and Klepis both on the sidelines, someone will have to center for Richard Zednik and Alexander Semin. My money is on Brian Sutherby, who made a great play to set up Ovechkin’s goal in Vancouver last night. But we’ll see in a matter of minutes.

Oh, and I think it goes without saying, but Brent Johnson gets the call in goal tonight. Olie Kolzig gets a well-deserved night off after a couple of tough and heroic performances in the first two games of the trip.

Hockey Night in Canada

October 29, 2006

We just made the journey up Wayne Gretzky Dr. to Rexall Place for tonight’s game. A handful of players were outside the lockerroom playing soccer when we walked in. Kelly Hrudey is in the house along with other HNIC luminaries.

Bryan Muir, Brooks Laich and Boyd Gordon will all be in the lineup tonight. Jamie Heward, Jakub Klepis and Kris Beech will get the night off.

More later, off to get something to eat.

Ovy Visits Vancouver

October 27, 2006

Just got back to the hotel after the morning skate at GM Place. Tonight’s game is a very big deal here. There were mobs of local media around Alex Ovechkin, Caps coach Glen Hanlon and Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo today. The headline in today’s Vancouver Province is “Luongo Befuddles Ovechkin,” with the subhead: “DUEL: Goalie kept star at bay last year, giving up only two goals on 45 shots.”

The only guy I’ve seen who truly “befuddled” Ovy lately was this guy. I was present as a spectator when this “DUEL” took place and I can report that our young Russian friend was genuinely frustrated.

It’s certainly true that Luongo had the Caps’ number last season, going 7-0 with a 1.96 GAA and a .949 save percentage. But Chris Clark dented him for a hat trick in one game, and had four of his 20 goals against Luongo last season. Dainius Zubrus had three goals in seven games against Bobby Lu, and Ovy did manage five assists in the seven games against Luongo in 2005-06.

There are two “wild cards” at play tonight. Vancouver’s defense and Alain Vigneault’s trapping style will not permit anywhere near the 40-50 shots a game that Luongo sometimes faced with Florida. And Washington’s offense is more deeper and more diverse than last season’s. The Caps were 23rd in the NHL in goal scoring in 2005-06, but are third in the NHL with an average of 3.62 goals per game this season.

In addition to the Ovy-Zubrus-Clark line, the Caps have another line that features team leading scorer Alexander Semin and a third unit that has Kris Beech (six points in eight games) and Matt Pettinger (two assists in his first game of 2005-06, coming off his first 20-goal season last year). Washington has scored three or more goals in five straight games, something it has not done since Nov. 15-23 of last season when it did so in five straight. The last time the Caps scored as many as three goals in more than five straight games was in the final six games of the 2002-03 regular season (Mar. 25-Apr. 3, 2003), the last time Washington made the playoffs.

Getting three against Luongo can be a tall order on any night in any building, but it’s worth remembering that Luongo had a 6-9-3 lifetime mark against the Caps before he ran the table against them last season. What’s likely going to be more important for Washington is limiting shots and chances against tonight’s starter, Olie Kolzig. The Caps have permitted an average of 36.8 shots on goal per game, the highest rate in the NHL. Vigneault’s boys are giving up only 28.3 shots a night, the third best average in the league.

It’s going to be a fun Friday night tilt in a highly charged hockey atmosphere. GM Place features one of the best concourses in the league for my money, and the Canucks will be unveiling their new center ice scoreboard screen. We saw it this morning and it is stunning.

By the way, it’s not just the media that is mobbing Ovy on this trip. Whenever the team bus arrives or departs the hotel, there is a horde of autograph seekers and photo opportunitsts looking for a bit of Mr. Ovechkin’s time. Ditto when the bus arrives at the arena. The groups are polite for the most part; Ovechkin sat outside a coffee shop with teammates Dainius Zubrus and Alexander Semin and a couple of Caps staffers this morning for several minutes while waiting for the bus. The autograph hounds left Ovy alone while he sat with his friends, and only began requesting signatures after he rose and began walking toward the bus.

Get Out of Denver, Baby, Go, Go

October 26, 2006

Some Thursday thoughts a day after a big Washington win in Denver:

First off, Alex Ovechkin is fine. He took a Shaone Morrisonn shot off his right leg in the waning seconds of Wednesday night’s game, but was walking without a limp last night and practiced here in Vancouver today.

Second, how about Olie Kolzig’s performance last night? The Avalanche fired a total of 78 shots in his direction, 48 of which went on goal and 45 of which he stopped. A few of us were talking on the bus last night, and we decided that if you make more than 40 saves and your team wins, you should be the game’s No. 1 star.

As a goaltender, sometimes you can face 45 shots and it feels like 30, and on other nights you might face 25 that feel like 35. I remarked to Olie last night that the 48 he saw against the Avs looked every bit like 48 from upstairs.

“Yeah, the first and the third period for sure,” he said. “The second period was pretty good; we stayed out of the penalty box and I think that was the difference between the first and the second period. The third period, I’m sure they got a little bit of a tongue-lashing in between periods and they came out with a lot of energy and threw everything at us.

“I wish I would have had [Joe] Sakic’s goal, but it was a pretty hard shot. I just couldn’t squeeze it hard enough and it just ended up trickling in. Zubie made a great play on the fourth goal and obviously that was the difference in the game.”

Sakic reached a significant milestone in last night’s game, becoming just the 11th player in NHL history to reach the 1,500-point barrier. Kolzig was gracious in his postgame recognition of Sakic’s achievement.

“The old guy can still shoot it,” said Kolzig. “Congratulations to him. I didn’t want to be part of the history books; I’ve already been part of it with Brendan Shanahan this year and now with Joe, but he’s a terrific hockey player and a terrific person. It’s a great accomplishment, and he can still play the game.”

Kolzig surrendered Shanahan’s 600th NHL goal on opening night against the Rangers in New York.

Back to three stars debate for a minute. While many rightfully contend that Kolzig should have been adorned with first star honors, the simple truth is that Ovechkin continues to dazzle many who are seeing him live for the first time. Since the local media picks the three stars, that likely accounts for Ovechkin’s selection as the game’s first star.

I can tell you this. A Colorado writer who has seen virtually all of the team’s games since the Quebec Nordiques moved to Denver more than a decade ago asked me this question after the first period:

“Is he always that fast?”

When I replied in the affirmative, this gentleman responded that until last night, he had no idea of how fast and elusive Ovechkin actually is. And remember, this was before he scored a goal in the second period or put Karlis Skrastins through the glass in the third.

It’s funny how those who have watched him regularly this season and last have occasionally wondered out loud, “What’s wrong with Ovechkin?” I have continually responded “nothing” to those queries, so it’s nice to have a similar perspective from a fresh set of eyes.

But maybe there is something wrong with him. As of this morning, he is on a pace to score 51 goals this season. He had 52 as a rookie in 2005-06. The league is definitely catching up to him.

Western Intelligence
I asked Glen Hanlon how the team goes about preparing for teams like Colorado, teams it hasn’t seen since 2003-04 and will only see once this season. Do they rely on video, pro scouting, both?

“We make some phone calls, but we also show video,” he said. “With a team like Colorado, we’ll show more film and go a few games back, but with the Western teams we’ll make some phone calls and talk to some people who see them a little bit more, too.”

Finally, a few observations after enduring last night’s game experience at Pepsi Center.

It was great to see and talk to Steve Konowalchuk again. He looks great and has an amazingly upbeat attitude. I talked with him for a few minutes and will have more on that conversation soon.

I’m not sure if this is the Pepsi Center norm or whether I happened to be in attendance on an “off” night, but I could barely stand the assault of Bad Eighties Music (a redundant term, some would say) that was launched over the public address system prior to pregame warm-ups. It’s 2006, not Two-Thousand Fixx. I have a low tolerance for “bad” music, and I wanted desperately to Make It Stop.

I always thought the Dallas public address announcer was an aural dead-ringer for The Simpsons’ Principal Skinner. But the Colorado guy is even more eerily Skinner-esque.

We beat the blizzard outta Denver and there is nothing like a plane ride after a win. Even the turbulence and the hard rain are acceptable.

On the Road, Denver, Dads and Drafts

October 25, 2006

(Ed’s note: I wrote this and thought I “published” it on Tuesday night in Denver, but lo and behold, your faithful and unsteady chronicler must’ve hit a wrong button. Here then is the Tuesday post followed by today’s drivel.)

“Carlo and I went through the rickety streets in the Denver night. The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.” … from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road

I just got back from dinner and a nice walk around this fine Colorado city, and naturally (for me, anyway) my thoughts turned to Jack Kerouac and Dean Moriarty. I’m a Kerouac fan and I always wonder what these places looked like back in the days when he was pounding these streets, which are not at all rickety anymore. I can report that the air was soft and the stars, fine. When I was in Lowell with the Portland Pirates during the lockout, I tried to visit Kerouac’s grave, but got lost and ran out of time. Kerouac and his beat buddies spent a fair amount of time in Denver, and their fond feelings for this town were obvious, so I was anxious to hit the streets for a while.

I wondered what part of town they frequented, and was told that it was Larimer St,, a part of town now known as LoDo. That part of town is now home to the Jack Kerouac Lofts, part of the ongoing revival that area has seen over the last decade-plus.

It’s my first time here in Denver, and it’s a strange city to fly into. On one side of the airplane, everything is flat and brown. Sparse. On the other side are the majestic, snow-capped Rockies. It really is the gateway to the west.

There are plenty of Caps and ex-Caps connections in these parts. Ex-Cap captain Steve Konowalchuk recently (and sadly) retired. Ex-Caps goalie Craig Billington is Colorado’s director of player personnel. Ex-Caps defenseman Ken Klee and forward Andrew Brunette are both members of the Avalanche. All four rank among my personal favorites among the scores of players who have passed through the District in my years on the beat.

Denver is also currently home to a couple of Capitals defense hopefuls, namely junior Andrew Thomas and freshman Keith Seabrook. Both are members of the vaunted Denver Pioneers, the Denver University ice hockey team. Denver split a pair of games with RPI, Brian Pothier’s alma mater, last weekend. The Pioneers are in Duluth for games on Friday and Saturday against U. Minn-Duluth.

On the bus from the airport to the hotel, we passed the old Denver Coliseum. That building still stands and is still in use for circuses and such; it was once home to various Denver minor league hockey teams from various leagues. My dad used to come to Denver frequently on business when I was a kid. I still have the game program he brought back for me from a Denver Spurs – Salt Lake Golden Eagles game he attended here back in 1974-75. The Spurs were a Blues farm team in those days; John Davidson played seven games in goal for them that season. My dad always brought me programs or pennants from games he went to on his trips. It’s a tradition I’ve carried forth with my own kids.

That ’74-75 season was the team’s lone year in the old Central Hockey League. McNichols Arena was opened in 1975, and the Spurs were a big league club for part of 1975-76, playing in the World Hockey Association. Bob Johnson played goal for the 1975-76 Denver Spurs of the WHA. His son Brent Johnson is, of course, now a goaltender for the Capitals.

In 1976-77 the Spurs were replaced by the NHL Colorado Rockies, freshly moved from a two-season stint as the Kansas City Scouts.

Klee lived in the area when he was a kid, and went to some Rockies games. Current Avs center Tyler Arnason is the son of ex-Cap and ex-Rockie Chuck Arnason, the only father-son Rockies-Avalanche combo.

Paul Stastny is making quite a splash for the Avs as a rookie this season. He is the son of Hockey Hall of Famer Peter Stastny, who spent most of his career with the Quebec Nordiques. The Nords moved to Colorado and became the Avalanche in 1995-96, one year after Peter Stastny’s last season in the NHL with the St. Louis Blues.

The Avs have won two Cups here in Colorado. Centers Joe Sakic and Peter Forsberg were instrumental in those titles, but it’s rather lucky that both players were here in the first place.

Everyone knows Forsberg’s story, which is linked to that of Eric Lindros. The notoriously bad Nords had the first overall choice in three consecutive NHL Entry Drafts. They chose Mats Sundin in 1989, Owen Nolan in 1990 and Lindros in 1991. Lindros thought that playing for a team such as the Nords was beneath him, so he and his parents/agents insisted that Quebec trade him. The Nordiques complied, dealing Lindros to the Flyers for a boatload of cash and several very good hockey players, including Forsberg.

If Lindros had never insisted on being traded, he would have remained with the Nords and Forsberg with the Flyers.

Now on to Sakic. The Nords drafted Sakic with the 15th overall choice in the 1987 NHL Entry Draft, a pick that was obtained from Washington in the deal that sent former Quebce center Dale Hunter to the Capitals.

What a lot of people don’t know is that the Nords initially had no intention of drafting Sakic. Having already chosen defenseman Brian Fogarty with the ninth overall pick that year, Quebec was laying for another defenseman, namely Stephane Quintal of the QMJHL’s Granby Bisons. The Nords were stunned when the Boston Bruins foiled their grand plan by taking Quintal themselves with the 14th overall choice. (Boston had previously taken defenseman Glen Wesley with the third overall choice.)

So flummoxed was the Quebec brass that they had to call a time out on the floor to decide what to do. Reluctantly, they chose Sakic. Had they gotten Quintal instead, there may have been a couple fewer Cups and a couple hundred fewer sellouts in these parts over the last decade.

The Caps chose Joe’s brother Brian Sakic with their fifth-round pick (93rd overall) in the 1990 NHL Entry Draft. Alas, he never made it to the NHL.

Kerouac was a rambling kind of guy and a rambling kind of writer, so those are my rambling kind of thoughts on my first night in Denver.