Archive for November 2006

Late Changes

November 30, 2006

Dainius Zubrus is unable to go tonight; he is ill. Jakub Klepis will be in the lineup in his place. As reported earlier today on the Pre-Cap podcast, Matt Bradley has returned to Ontario for his grandfather’s funeral. Bradley will be replaced in tonight’s lineup by Donald Brashear, who returns to the lineup tonight after having served his three-game suspension for instigating a fight with Atlanta’s Vitaly Vishnevski on Nov. 22. Jamie Heward is back in the lineup tonight too, replacing Bryan Muir who skated in Tuesday’s win over the Lightning at Tampa Bay.

Mike Smith will be in goal tonight for Dallas.


Full House

November 30, 2006

In poker and in pro sports, the full house is a good thing. But it’s much easier to do in the former than the latter.

How does a team fill up its building as close to capacity for as many dates as possible? There are gimmicks, schemes, promotions, and any number of other methods which have varying degrees of success depending on the building and the location. Ultimately however, the one thing that impacts attendance more than anything else is the quality of the building’s tenant.

It’s easy to say, “[City X] is just not a hockey market.” Nonsense. Think Tampa Bay is a hockey market? Think Tampa Bay was a hockey market 1998-99 when it averaged 11,500 patrons per game, or just 58.2% of capacity? Think it’s a hockey market now because it averaged 20,509 spectators a game in 2005-06, which is 103.8% of capacity? Did 9,000 season ticket holders move to the Tampa-St. Pete area from other North American cities over a seven-year span, conveniently giving the Bolts the boost they needed to fill the Forum?

Nope. Stanley Cup. It’s as simple as that.

From 1993-94 through 2001-02, the Lightning was an NHL doormat that made exactly one playoff appearance. And the attendance reflected that. In the early seasons of its existence, the Lightning played in the monstrous Thunderdome, which had a capacity of 26,000. (The Lightning played its first season at tiny Expo Hall, where capacity was a mere 10,425.) Although the Bolts averaged better than 19,000 fans per game in their three seasons at Thunderdome, that figure was roughly three-fourths of capacity.

The team moved into its current home (capacity 19,758) in 1996-97. It made its first (and for a long time, its only) playoff appearance that season and drew an average of 17,412 folks per night. And in the subsequent seasons, it never again approached that number until it returned to the playoffs in 2002-03. The Lightning pushed its way back up to 16,545 that season, a figure that represented 83.7% of the Forum’s capacity.

A year later, the Lightning won it all. The Bolts averaged 17,820 fans (90.2% of capacity) in their championship season of 2003-04. The winner’s bump usually comes a year later, and such was the case with the Lightning. Despite an ugly and protracted labor dispute that shut down the NHL for an entire season, Lightning fans did not forget. When business resumed as usual, the Bolts outdrew their capacity, even though they barely snuck into the playoffs in 2005-06.

The Lightning is still rolling them in this season. Tampa Bay has drawn an average of 19,921 fans in 14 home dates thus far this season. That’s third in the NHL, trailing only traditional Original Six hockey hotbeds Montreal and Detroit.

After winning the Cup in 2004, the Lightning did something interesting off the ice. The team dubbed itself “Hockey Bay,” much in the manner that Detroit dubbed itself “Hockeytown” sometime after it stopped serving as the league’s perennial weak sister (sort of like that annoying guy you knew in college who gave himself a “cool” nickname, hoping it would stick). The front cover of Detroit’s 1996-97 press guide proudly trumpets: “Hockeytown, est. 1926.” Yeah, the franchise was established in 1926, but it’s funny how none of the powers that be ever called it that until the team had won a few straight division titles and was on the verge of claiming its first Cup after a 42-year drought.

The Caps played the Lightning in Tampa Bay on Tuesday. I watched the game with my son on television. He wanted to know why there was no Lightning logo on the ice at the center face-off circle (there was a lame Hockey Bay logo instead). It was a difficult question to answer in a manner that an eight-year-old would understand.

The Red Wings themselves are conveniently revisionist when it comes to attendance. Their media guide only lists attendance figures from the last 15 seasons. Okay, I figured. I’ll look in an older guide. I picked up the 1974-75 guide, only to find four seeminingly random seasons listed. They weren’t the four most recent seasons at the time, and only one of the seasons had an average figure above 14,000 anyway.

I can tell you this. The Caps visited Detroit three times in Washington’s inaugural season of 1974-75. There were 13,217 in the house on Oct. 19, there were 10,425 in attendance on Jan. 26 and 11,239 showed up on Apr. 2. The Hockeytowners were 23-45-12 that season. Detroit was then in the midst of a dark age in which it missed the playoffs 15 times in a 17-year span. That’s back when making the playoffs in the NHL was almost like a door prize. Show up and chances were better than three in four that you’d get into the postseason dance. Attendance in Hockeytown reflected the team’s performance on the ice during that dark period.

To be fair to the Wings, none of the Original Six teams lists a complete attendance history in its press guide. My guess is that few cared how many people were in the building back in the 1920s and 1930s, but I’m not sure. Anyway, we’ll deal with the evidence we do have. I brought up the Wings mainly because of the whole Hockeytown thing, and because they do have some shreds of attendance history available to be perused.

Carolina presents another interesting case. To the Canes’ credit, they did not rename the area “Hockey Triangle” after winning the 2006 Stanley Cup title. During their formative years as the Hartford Whalers, the franchise had some attendance ups and downs. Not coincidentally, the Whalers’ best attendance seasons were 1986-87 and 1987-88. Those were the seasons that followed two of the three best “on-ice” seasons the club had during its years in Connecticut.

The Canes moved south in 1997-98. Housed temporarily in Greensboro during its first two seasons, Carolina moved into its new and current home in 1999-00. They missed the playoffs and drew an average of 12,400 (66.2% of capacity) to a brand new building. They made the playoffs in 2000-01, and bumped attendance to 13,595 (72.6%) in the process. Finally, in 2001-02, the Canes went all the way to the Stanley Cup finals. They drew 16,142 (86.2%) that season. They missed the playoffs the next two seasons, and attendance dipped as a result. Carolina drew an average of just 12,330 (65.8%) in 2003-04, the year before the lockout.

Last season started similarly for Carolina. After pulling in 18,787 fans for their home opener (which also featured Sidney Crosby), the team attracted 10,968 (a season low) and 12,116 and 13,098 to its next three home games. By this time the team was 6-2-1, and well on its way to a Southeast Division title. Attendance dipped below 12,000 only three times in the last 37 home dates of the season.

This season, the defending Cup champion Canes are playing to an average of 17,134 fans a night, or 91.5% of capacity. If they can maintain that number, it would be the best figure in the franchise’s 27 seasons in the league.

As a first-year expansion team, the Florida Panthers enjoyed 26 sellouts in 1993-94. They sold out all 41 dates at the old Miami Arena (capacity 14,703) in 1996-97, the season after they made their lone appearance in the Stanley Cup finals. Riding that wave, they sold out 39 of 41 dates the following season, which was the last in Miami. The Panthers drew an average of 18,501 in their first season at brand new BankAtlantic Center, which holds 19,250. But the Panthers have made only one playoff appearance since 1997. And they haven’t won a playoff series since then. Attendance has reflected this; they’ve had 19 sellouts in the past six seasons and have nudged their averaged just over 16,000 only twice in that span. Florida is at 14,829 this season, the second lowest figure of the BankAtlantic era.

Buffalo has a good building in what is generally regarded as a good hockey market. But three straight seasons of missing the playoffs led to the two lowest seasonal attendance figures since the team moved into its new home in 1996-97. Then, bam. Lockout over, contending team in place and attendance back up to an average of 16,841 a night. This season, Buffalo had to cap its season ticket sales just so it would have some inventory of sinngle-game tickets to put on sale. The Sabres have sold out each game this season for an average attendance of 18,690. That would shatter the previous franchise record of 17,982, set in 1998-99. Naturally, that was the last time the Sabres advanced to the Cup finals.

Until last season, St. Louis was a perennial playoff team. Until last season, St. Louis drew well. The Blues played to at least 92% of capacity every season from 1989-90 to 2003-04. In 2005-06, the Blues missed the playoffs for the first time since 1978-79. St. Louis drew 14,213 last season, just 74.7% of capacity. The two worst attendance seasons in St. Louis franchise history were 1977-78 (59.1%) and 1978-79 (56.4%). Those are two of only four seasons in their entire history in which the Blues did not make the playoffs.

The Blues are at the bottom of this year’s attendance ledger with an average of 10,854 (57.1%). That’s the lowest percentage of capacity figure for any Blues team since 1978-79.

Detecting any patterns here? If you want an outlier, take the New Jersey Devils. They’ve been among the top teams in the league on the ice for the last decade and a half, but attendance generally hasn’t kept pace. The Devils don’t list attendance history in their 2006-07 press guide. They currently rank 28th in the league with an average of 12,616 for 10 home dates. New Jersey will move into a new building next season, and could get a bump from the change in venue. The location of the current building does not provide the rich game-day experience that some of its more urban counterparts can deliver.

As for our Capitals, their historical attendance pattern is no different from what is outlined above. The Caps drew an average of 10,004 in their inaugural season of 1974-75 when they iced what is arguably the worst team in the history of the NHL. Over the next seven seasons, the team got better, but never made the playoffs. And average attendance never rose above 11,377.

The team finally made its first playoff appearance in 1982-83, and attendance began to creep upward as a result. From 1983-84 through 1989-90, the figure rose each season to a high of 17,251 in 1989-90. The Caps enjoyed 23 sellouts (a franchise record, since matched) in 1988-89 and 18 in 1989-90. As the team tailed off from its best seasons in the mid- to late-1980s, so did attendance. The 1989-90 total was the high water mark for attendance at the old Capital Centre/USAir Arena.

The Caps moved to their current digs in downtown DC in the middle of the 1997-98 season. The first 10 dates of the campaign were played at USAir Arena, where the team drew an average of 13,668 that season. That was the lowest mark since 1983-84. For the final 31 dates at MCI Center, the Caps drew an average of 15,794.

This is the team’s eighth full season in downtown Washington. The Caps have exceeded the 17,000 threshold (in average attendance) in two of those seasons. The first was 1998-99, the season immediately after the only Stanley Cup finals appearance in franchise history. But the injury-riddled Caps missed the playoffs that season, and attendance dropped to 14,486 as a result. When the club returned to the postseason, a boost to 15,534 was noted in 2000-01. In July of 2001, the Capitals made a blockbuster trade to acquire Jaormir Jagr from the Pittsburgh Penguins. Attendance jumped to an all-time franchise record of 17,341 in 2001-02. But again, the Caps could not sustain that gate success. They missed the playoffs and attendance subsequently tumbled.

Last season’s average attendance of 13,905 was the lowest full season average since 1983-84. Currently, the Caps are 27th in the league with an average gate of 12,886. History shows that like most NHL teams, Washington’s attendance can be expected to rise when it wins. Or when it makes a big splash in personnel acquisition market.

I’m not advocating the former, but I am advocating the latter. Just don’t start calling it “Hockey Capital” come 2009 or so when the locals finally hoist the Cup.

Johnny in Goal

November 24, 2006

Brent Johnson will be in goal for Washington against Toronto tonight, getting his first home start of the season. The Caps will go back to Olie Kolzig for Saturday’s game against the Islanders in New York. Although the standard practice is to give the starter the home game and the backup the road game of back-to-back tilts, varying the routine makes sense in this case. Kolzig has always had great success against the Islanders while Johnson has not. And Toronto has given Kolzig fits from time to time, going back to when he was a teenager in 1989.

Aside from the Alex Ovechkin-Dainius Zubrus-Chris Clark combo, the forward lines will be reshuffled a bit tonight as well. Jakub Klepis will center for Matt Pettinger and Eric Fehr. Boyd Gordon is between Matt Bradley and Richard Zednik, and Kris Beech is back in the lineup to play between Brooks Laich and Ben Clymer. There is a good bit of balance to those units, let’s see if they can get the Caps’ offense rolling again. Washington has managed just seven goals during its current four-game losing streak (0-2-2).

The Sutton Sheet

November 24, 2006

Okay, so Brashear will miss the next three games and Sutherby the next one. Eric Fehr is en route from Hershey and he will be in the lineup against Toronto on Friday.

Having a look at the rule book after last night’s Atlanta-Washington tilt, I figured that today’s suspensions might not be as cut and dried as those listed in section 47.22, the area of the book that deals with fines and suspensions when an instigator penalty occurs in the final five minutes of regulation or anytime in overtime of an NHL game. Here’s what it says:

“A player or goalkeeper who is deemed to be the instigator of an altercation in the final five (5) minutes of regulation time or at anytime in overtime, shall automatically be suspended for one game. The Director of Hockey Operations will review every such incident and may recind [sic] the suspension based on a number of criteria. The criteria for the review shall include, but not [be] limited to, the score, previoius [sic] incidents, etc. The length of suspension will double for each subsequent offense. This suspension shall be served in addition to any other automatic suspensions a player may incur for an accumulation of three or more instigator penalties.

When the one-game suspension is imposed, the player or goalkeeper’s Coach shall be fined $10,000 — a fine that will double for each subsequent incident.

No team appeals will be permitted either verbally or in writing regarding the assessment of this automatic suspension.”

I took some degree of hope from that portion that I bolded. Colin Campbell, who serves as said Director of Hockey Operations, is the guy who makes the call and this time he went strictly by the book. That has not always been the case.

Check out this link, which contains the details and extensive quotes from Campbell on his thought process in not suspending Phoenix winger Shane Doan and Coyotes coach Wayne Gretzky after a similar incident last season. I don’t disagree with Campbell’s ruling in that case, but I’ll admit that I hoped he might have looked at this one a bit closer.

Given the tenor of the rule and its application, I don’t think there can be any surprise that Donald Brashear was suspended. I thought Brian Sutherby and Scott Mellanby might have their suspensions looked at a bit more closely, based on this quote from Campbell, again from the above link:

“The key to the whole rule was that it would be automatic – no appeal by the team. But I would review every instigator in the last five minutes to see if it would pass the litmus test.

“And that would be, is this guy a two-shift guy who was out to send a message? Was it a tough guy doing his thing and leaving his calling card?

“Obviously, when you’re talking about Doan, he played the most minutes in the game, you’re not sending him out to send a message. So I’m going to assess each and every one when it happens.”

Neither Sutherby nor Mellanby are “two-shift guys[s] out to send a message.” Although if you look at the shift chart, it does reflect that Sutherby’s instigator penalty came on his first shift of the third period. Campbell might have been inclined to look at that and Sutherby’s ice time for the game (9:06) and to lay down judgment accordingly. If he had delved a bit further (and I understand that a system that requires quick justice may not permit his doing so), he would see that Sutherby entered the game with an average of 15:53 per night in ice time. That’s more than Mellanby’s 15:11 and more than Brad Larsen’s 10:47 (Larsen was the Thrasher who fought with Sutherby). Aside from last night, Sutherby’s lowest single-game ice time total was 13:22, on Oct. 30 in Calgary.

So why didn’t Sutherby skate in the third period until late in the third? Did he commit an egregious defensive miscue which led to his being benched? Unlikely, since he was not on the ice for any of the four goals Washington allowed.

Was he hurt? Possible, although the Capitals insist he was not. He definitely took an Ilya Kovalchuk slapshot to the lower body in the first period of Wednesday’s game, and that may have left him a bit dinged. He played 4:24 in the first and 4:38 in the second. He did not practice on Thursday with his teammates; the Caps gave him the day off for “rest.” We’re left to draw our own conclusions. Having seen virtually every one of Sutherby’s 200-plus NHL games and a lot of the ones he played in the AHL too, I don’t have to think too long.

The rulebook is a bit vague, and maybe that’s intentional. The area of “… previoius [sic] incidents, etc.” could be interpreted to include the infamous Eddie Shore “check” on King Clancy that occurred on Dec. 12, 1933. What it apparently does not include is previous incidents on the rap sheet of the guy who started the whole kerfuffle.

That would be Atlanta defenseman Andy Sutton. Now in his eighth season in the league, Sutton played in his 400th NHL game last night. So congratulations to him; I believe he now qualifies for the league’s pension plan. He is a good NHL defenseman; he has averaged better than 20 minutes a night over the last couple seasons and was averaging 22:09 a night this season prior to last night’s game. With the Thrashers short three defensemen and with some green rookies in their lineup, Sutton stepped up for his team, playing a season-high 29:02 against the Caps on Wendesday. He had an assist, played on the power play, blocked three shots and was a plus-1 on the night. He also touched off a tempest.

With Atlanta enjoying a two-goal lead and a power play advantage, and with less than two minutes remaining, the outcome of the game was all but decided. Normally, Sutton wouldn’t even be out on the Atlanta power play. But the Thrashers were without Steve McCarthy and Niclas Havelid, their two most frequently deployed defensemen on the power play (forward Ilya Kovalchuk plays the power play point for the Thrashers, and he sometimes stays out for nearly the entire two minutes). As a result, Sutton logged 4:37 of extra-man time in the game, as compared to his prior average of just 25 seconds a contest.

Caps defenseman Mike Green was carrying the puck through the neutral zone, and Sutton lined him up. He came hard at Green at the Atlanta blueline, but the young Caps blueliner eluded the brunt of the check. Sutton lunged for Green with his elbows and stick both up high, leaving little doubt as to his intent.

You know the rest. Ten fighting majors, seven game misconducts, three instigator penalties. Going into last night’s game, the Caps had taken three fighting majors in their first 20 games of the season. They matched that total on the shift after Sutton’s shenanigans, when Brashear, John Erskine and Matt Bradley all dropped the gloves.

It was Sutton’s hit (some would say “intended” hit) that sparked the whole thing but there are no fines or suspensions headed his way. Hard to suspend a guy for “almost” taking someone’s head off, I agree. But what about fining a guy with a lengthy history of this sort of thing? Or showing some understanding and leniency to a coach who might understandably be frustrated with the repeat frequency of this sort of thing against his team and other teams around the league?

Glen Hanlon got fined $10,000 for Brashear’s instigator penalty, and an additional $20,000 for Sutherby’s, for a grand total of $30,000. Hanlon took over as Washington’s head coach on Dec. 10, 2003. The Caps played in Atlanta on Dec. 16, 2003, Hanlon’s third game as the team’s bench boss. Washington won that game, 5-0. With 1:12 remaining and his team down five goals, Sutton incurred the rare triple-minor. He got two for cross-checking and four for roughing.

There’s more.

In the most celebrated Sutton incident, he received a 10-minute misconduct for attempt to injure in an Oct. 14, 2005 game against Toronto. That infraction came at 9:57 of the third period with the Thrashers trailing 6-1. They went on to lose, 9-1. Campbell suspended Sutton for four games for that one. A week earlier, he got a roughing minor at 16:18 of the third while his team led 7-1 in what became an 8-1 rout over Washington.

On Jan. 7, 2006 against Pittsburgh, he got a 10-minute misconduct at 19:58 of the third period. On Jan. 26 against Carolina, Sutton was given a roughing minor and a 10-minute misconduct at 17:13 of the third period of a 4-1 loss to the Canes. On Mar. 25, he received an elbowing minor at 18:14 of the third period of a 5-1 loss to the Islanders. On April 13, he was given a two-minute minor for elbowing Ivan Majesky (and probably should have gotten a misconduct for attempt to injure) with seven seconds remaining in a 5-3 Atlanta win over Washington. Just 11 days before last night’s game, Sutton got a five-minute slashing major and a 10-minute misconduct at 10:58 of the third period of a 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay.

Detect any patterns there? Maybe he’s hanging out with the wrong crowd. Jim Slater for goaltender interference (he did that once against Olie Kolzig and got a face full of mitt for his troubles) with Atlanta leading 5-0 over Florida on Oct. 7 of this season. Slater for boarding in the same game after the score reached 6-0.

Garnet Exelby for cross-checking and high-sticking with Atlanta leading Boston 3-1 in what would become a 4-1 win on Oct. 11. Larsen two for boarding at 13:38 of the third with Atlanta losing 4-2 against the Canes on Nov. 3. With Atlanta down 5-2 in the final minute of the same game, Mellanby gets a 10-minute misconduct and Exelby a two-minute charging minor. Who did Exelby charge? Carolina goaltender Cam Ward. Exelby has two goals in 179 NHL games. He probably needed a GPS to find the opposing team’s crease.

In their most recent game before visiting Washington on Wednesday, the Thrashers were in Montreal. It was a tight 2-1 game until Radek Bonk gave the Habs some breathing room with an empty-netter at 18:46. That’s when the Thrashers start to get loose, when a tight game isn’t so tight any more. Watch them. They take hooking and holding penalties in tight games. They take slashing, boarding, charging and goaltender interference calls once the game is more or less settled. That was the case on Saturday. Bobby Holik for goaltender interference at 19:32 of the third.

“Even with the fourth goal, there was still plenty of time for us to come back and win this game,” says Caps captain Chris Clark, of the game situation when the Sutton incident occurred. “It wasn’t until the big hit there from Sutton. He is a big hitter and that’s fine. But Greenie made a great move to get around him and he throws his elbows, stick, everything to try to get a piece of him. He knows something is going to happen if he does something like that. He’d probably be the first to say, ‘If I do that, guys are going to come after me.’ That’s what happened. Our guys are going to stick up for each other. That would have happened if it was a one-goal game.”

True, but history shows that Sutton and his mates likely wouldn’t have even tried that stuff in a one-goal game. Thrashers coach Bob Hartley feigns innocence and astonishment at this sort of thing, but the Freedom of Information Act (well, the availability of box scores and games on television, anyway) exposes that charade.

Brash Gets Three

November 23, 2006

I’ve just been informed that the events in last night’s Caps-Thrashers game have led to a three-game suspension for Washington’s Donald Brashear. No other suspensions are forthcoming for the Caps, and I don’t know whether Atlanta will incur any suspensions. Supposedly, some fines are also forthcoming, and more details on those will be made available later by the league.

Check that, the Caps’ Brian Sutherby and Atlanta’s Scott Mellanby also received a one-game suspension each. Caps coach Glen Hanlon was fined $30,000 and Thrashers’ coach Bob Hartley was fined $10,000.

Interesting that there are no repercussions for Atlanta’s Andy Sutton, who has a history of this sort of thing. More on that a bit later.

Quarter Pole

November 21, 2006

Okay, so 20 games down and 62 to go. We’re basically a quarter of the way through this 82-chapter story that unfolds annually over a period of six months. What can we tell about these 20 games that will give us an indication of what lies ahead? I’m not sure, but I will toss a few ideas around.

The Capitals have a higher number (six) in that limbo column, the third column in the standings, than any other team in the NHL right now. Those are games not won, but games in which the Caps earned a point simply by playing even for 60 minutes of regulation. Seven of Washington’s first 20 games required more than 60 minutes to determine a victor, and the Caps have won only one of those seven.

Conversely, the Caps have only eight wins. Among Eastern Conference clubs, only the futile Philadelphia Flyers have fewer with five. But the Caps are getting points on a regular basis. They’ve claimed at least one in 14 of thier 20 games, and have yet to go as many as two straight games without a standings point. As a result, they go into tonight’s NHL action tied for the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Caps are in the middle of the pack in virtually all of the significant team measures. They’re 14th in average goals (2.95) per game, and they’re 19th in average goals (3.05) surrendered. Four wins have come at home, and four were earned on the road. They’re 17th in power play prowess (15.9%) and 17th in penalty killing (82.5%).

Washington’s goaltenders are sixth in the league in save percentage, and third in the Eastern Conference. The goaltending has been simply stellar, and it has had to be. If the goaltending didn’t have to be so good, the Caps could be better in other areas of the game.

Here is what I mean. Washington has averaged 27.5 shots on goal per game this season; they rank 23rd in the league in that department. Toronto leads at 34.5 shots per game, and Chicago brings up the rear at 25.2. So you can see the Caps are much closer to the bottom than they are to the top.

Part of the reason they’re down so far on the shots on goal ledger is that they’ve spent a lot of time in their own end, giving up shots on goal. The Caps have surrendered an average of 36.5 shots per game, the highest total in the league. No other team has allowed more than 33.6. The Red Wings are far and away the best in the league in this category; they’ve allowed a mere 20.9 per contest. No other team is below 26.

The Capitals’ shot differential is minus-9, the worst in the league. Pittsburgh is second-worst at minus-6.3. By playing so much in their own end, the Caps are depriving themselves of one of the prime spoils of playing in the other end of the rink: power play opportunities and the resulting scoring chances they provide.

The Caps have drawn just 247 minutes worth of penalties from their opponents this season, tied with Florida for the second fewest in the NHL. Only the Islanders (215) have drawn fewer. The Islanders are also in the lower reaches of the NHL in shots allowed (33.2) and shot differential (minus-5-5). The Panthers, on the other hand, appear to lack discipline. They’re only 16th in shots against, but they’ve taken 110 more PIM than their opponents through their first 22 games of the campaign. That’s the highest differential in the league.

Back to the Caps. Shave that shots against total down to 30, which is the middle-of-the-pack range. (St. Louis has permitted exactly 30 per game, and it ranks 14th overall.) That’s only about two fewer shots per period. Spend a little more time at the other end of the rink. Draw some penalties. Get some power plays. Score some goals. Win more games before overtime or (shudder) the shootout becomes necessary. Get two points instead of one.

Make the playoffs.

It’s not a pipedream anymore, not with 22 points in 20 games. Already those who picked the Caps to finish in the nether reaches of the Eastern Conference standings are backpedaling and readjusting their preseason calibrations. (I recently asked a reporter where he picked the Caps before the season started. “Tenth,” was the reply. Then I checked myself. Twelfth was his actual preseason pick.) And here’s the best part. They should get better. They’re a young team, and that’s what young teams do.

Last season, the Caps were 8-12 (16 points) at the same juncture. The next quarter of the 2005-06 season was flat; the Caps picked up 15 points and were at 31 at the season’s midway point. They rallied for 19 points in the third quarter, and 20 in the fourth. The 31-point first half was followed by 39 in the second.

Washington’s current pace would give it about 88 points at season’s end. In this era of the proliferation of the three-point game, that is not likely to get the Caps into playoff position. But a 44-point first half followed by a second half of say, 50 or 52 points might do it. Spending more time at the other end of the ice could be the key variable in the equation.

One more thing. The Caps will play 43 games between now and the Feb. 27 NHL trading deadline. No other team in the league will be in better position to add payroll and talent from a salary cap standpoint between now and then. In a perfect world, the Caps could get it done with the players currently on the roster, and add a key player or two next summer. But it’s nice to know that they’ve got the flexibility to add if management and ownership decide that is the route to take.

Monday Press Confluence

November 20, 2006

Monday morning made for a bit of a traffic jam in the parking garage beneath Verizon Center. Not only were the Washington Capitals practicing on the Phone Booth ice sheet, the team formerly known as the Bullets was also in the house and practicing behind closed doors (media is not permitted to watch these top secret doings). Plenty of fancy rides were shoehorned into the players’ parking area when I wheeled my single hubcap, ’98 Toyota into the building to watch the Caps practice for the first time since Saturday’s 3-2 overtime loss in Boston.

There were three media members in attendance at the Caps’ practice, two of whom (including yours truly) are paid by the team. Across the hall where the local basketball team was practicing, a horde of media (more than a dozen) stood listening to the squeak of sneakers and the bounce of the round ball from the other side of the closed doors. And waiting for someone to come out and talk to them. Must have been some big story brewing over there where the 4-5 team (winless on the road) was holding court for no one to see. Whatever it was, I didn’t hang around to find out. All I know is that the last time I saw that many members of the media assembled in the same place, it was because the Redskins brought in a back-up long snapper for a look on a Wednesday. Big day, that.

Over on the ice sheet, many of the Caps’ wounded were back on the ice. Defenseman Steve Eminger and right wing Chris Clark took part in the full practice. Alexander Semin and Matt Pettinger came out and skated later. Eminger, Clark and Pettinger are expected to be in the lineup on Wednesday when the Capitals host Atlanta. Dainius Zubrus had Monday off, but he is also expected to play on Wednesday. Semin is on injured reserve and can’t play before Saturday’s visit to Long Island. Tomas Fleischmann, recalled from Hershey for Saturday’s game in Boston, rejoined the Bears in Providence on Sunday.

Clark was sporting a helmet with a modified cage, one that may need to be altered before he takes the ice against Atlanta. In last Wednesday’s game against Boston, Clark took a puck square in the mouth late in the third period of a 2-2 game. The shot — actually a clearing attempt — felled him, but he got back on his feet and continued his shift when he realized that the puck was still in Washington’s defensive zone. The clock and the scoreboard mattered more to Clark than did the mess that had been made of his mouth.

“I saw the puck going back to my point,” recalls Clark. “I’m standing there and I’ve got to do something. I can’t just lay down; they’re not going to blow the whistle right away especially if [the Bruins] have control of the puck. There’s no sense in laying on the ice. My legs didn’t break; I could get up and skate.

“It didn’t hurt. I didn’t really feel anything. My mouthguard was in, but I knew something wasn’t connected.”

He was right about that. Two of his teeth weren’t connected. Given that he lost those teeth and also suffered a crushed palate bone, the fact that Clark remained on the ice is nothing short of remarkable.

“It says that he is setting the standard,” says Caps coach Glen Hanlon, when asked what the incident says about the Capitals’ captain. “If that’s your captain and he is doing that, then I think all the players would have to look at that and say that’s what they want to try to match. And it won’t be easy for them. I can say that is likely the most courageous thing I’ve seen in hockey.”

What Clark endured the day after the puck in the mouth was probably even more courageous. His crushed palate was repaired with a cadaver bone and a screw. Three teeth on one side of the newly acquired “gap” were held together with braces. And he had a root canal. All this with merely local anasthesia. The procedure took “two or three hours,” says Clark.

“I couldn’t feel anything, but I could hear it,” he says with a bit of a wince in his voice. “That was the worst thing about it.”

Clark may have showed a disregard for his body by staying on the ice after taking the biscuit to the bicuspids, but it’s par for the course. He was far more concerned with trying to play Washington’s next games (last Friday and Saturday) than he was about what would be done to fill the space where his two teeth once resided.

“I don’t even know what’s going on now,” he says, when asked about the replacement choppers. “I haven’t talked to the dentist since Friday after the game. He was just worried about recovering from that. I’ll figure out the rest as I go on.”

He practiced with the team Friday morning and was visibly disappointed when told he would not be cleared to play in that night’s game. Clark says that he wouldn’t have missed any games had the injury occurred during the playoffs.

“They wanted to make sure the swelling was natural and didn’t have anything to do with anything else,” he states. “I could have played the last two games. If it was the playoffs, I wouldn’t have missed any time.”

He’s right about that. Knowing Clark, he probably would have been back on the ice for the opening faceoff of overtime had it been a playoff game. Given his sandpaper style on the ice, and the fact that he has played nearly 800 games (35 in juniors, 142 in college, 169 in the AHL, 18 in Europe, 374 in the NHL and 58 playoff games), it’s fairly remarkable that Clark’s teeth held up as long as they did.

Not sure what the big story was across the hall on Monday, but it’s got to be a fairly compelling one. With five or six times the amount of assembled media there waiting anxiously to get it and tell it, I’m just as anxious to read all about it on Tuesday.

And I don’t even like basketball.

Wait, this just in. One of the basketball dudes had a back bruise. Oh. No wonder there was such concern. Hope he is okay now. At least he didn’t get soap in his eyes. That can really hurt.