Archive for October 2007

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.”

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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.

Local Boy Makes Good

October 25, 2007

A few summers ago, I watched Vienna’s Garrett Roe hold his own as a 16-year-old at the Capitals’ annual summer development camp. After playing for the Indiana Ice in the USHL, Roe is now skating for the St. Cloud St. Huskies in the WCHA.

Here’s a nice piece about him.

Loophole?

October 25, 2007

The Toronto Maple Leafs are apparently making a play for junior sensation John Tavares, possibly offering him an AHL contract to play in town with the Marlies. Given the rules in both the NHL and the AHL, this looks like a reach that will ultimately prove fruitless. I much preferred then-Florida GM Rick Dudley’s attempts to select Alex Ovechkin in the 2003 draft, claiming that leap years made him eligible to be drafted.

Here’s the link from The Toronto Globe and Mail.

Pre-Game Quotes

October 24, 2007

Caps coach Glen Hanlon holds court three times every game day, and he had some interesting quotes when we spoke with him shortly after 5 p.m. this evening, just hours before face-off for tonight’s game between the Capitals and the Lightning at Verizon Center.

On Alexander Semin’s impending return:
“It’s not as hard for him I think as it is for someone without his ability to miss a month or three weeks and come back.

“I’m not expecting Alexander Semin to just come walking in here and change our fortunes. It’s up to everybody to do the things that we need to do. We need to still crash the net and we need to make crisp passes. Semin will be on the ice for 20 minutes. He is not going to come in and score five goals for us. We are expecting more production from our power play and it’s going to help having him in there.

“And I’m hoping that it excites Michael Nylander, not that Michael Nylander needs it. But I think if I had come here I would be expecting to play with Alexander Semin or Alexander Ovechkin. Not doing that for six of the first seven games would be I think a little disappointing.”

On whether he believes that a struggling power play is better off getting six or seven chances on a night rather than just two or three, as the well-disciplined Lightning are sometimes prone to allowing:
“I think it does. It [helps] execution. You have to get opportunities. We’ve spent a lot of time on it here [in practice]. Watching us in practice it looks better with Semin in there, by where he is. We’re counting on this to happen. But I’m not trying to set myself up for failure. If we’re 0-for-3 at the end of the night, it’s not Alexander Semin’s fault. Everyone has to share the responsibility for doing the right things.

“We’ve been pretty patient with everything here in terms of keeping the lines together and keeping the power play groups fairly [stable]. We have a belief that this is going to be successful and we’re not going to waver from it at this point.”

On what he believes is the problem with the power play:
“I think it’s execution of passes. I think it’s the fundamental things of receiving a pass and giving a quick pass. And getting the point shots through to the front of the net, getting a shot on goal is important. We don’t have much trouble getting it in [the zone]. Penetration time is not our problem. Ours has been the execution of passes, and net presence which I thought was better both 5-on-5 and 5-on-4 the last game.”

On whether he expects Boyd Gordon to spend the night up against the Vincent Lecavalier line:
“Here’s what you run up against. You play Tampa Bay, and you’ll like see either Lecavalier or Richards six of the first 12 shifts. You want Gordo to do that, but you can’t have Boyd Gordon playing eight of the first 12 minutes because Ovechkin and Semin will just sit there, and John [Tortorella] will be quite happy just to keep on if I want to match those guys. I think you will see him out there against them, but I can’t leave Ovechkin sitting on the bench all night long and I can’t leave Semin. So eventually they are going to have to play a shift against those guys and get the job done. And I’m comfortable that they will do it. The plan for [the Lightning] is usually their top players play close to 23 to 24 minutes. They try to get the lead with their top players, and it’s a great strategy.”

On playing just his second of eight games with more or less a full and healthy lineup:
“I think we’re drawing confidence from that. I think our best 40 minutes was the Carolina game [on Oct. 6]. Our best 120 [consecutive] minutes was against the Islanders and Pittsburgh [last week]. But our best 40 minutes of hockey I felt we played was the [first] two periods against Carolina with this lineup. We’ll see. I think the players are getting a good feeling about that.

“I though we were learning how to win then and got a little nervous and sat back too much in the third. We must have gotten into five or six controlled forechecks and stopped pressuring pucks and things like that. But I thought the first couple periods were real good, solid hockey.”

On whether Tomas Fleischmann could spell Semin at even strength on occasion tonight:
“Last game we had Gordo playing against Crosby. But in the middle of the second period we took a bunch of penalties, and you look down the bench and see that Gordo isn’t recovering. Most of the time he is. Well, you can’t put a player out that hasn’t recovered. So if I’m saying that I’m going to play Semin on a regular shift, and I look down and he has been out for a minute and 30 seconds on a power play and his shift comes up and I look down and see that he hasn’t recovered yet, that’s my decision to put in a fresher player. You could see Flash in that spot.”

On what Brian Sutherby needs to do to get back into the lineup:
“I was asked that question on Comcast. It has nothing to do with Brian. I know what Brian can do. He is in a really tough situation right now and he has been unbelievable with it. We have not scored a lot of goals lately. And we’re counting on this group to get us some goals. I have just made a decision that this is what the lineup is going to be. Brian is a centerman. I don’t want to go through our lineup one-by-one, but the centermen I’ve felt have done a good enough job. I know what Brian can do. I feel for him. This has nothing to do with Brian Sutherby as a person. I have nothing but the utmost respect and admiration for him. I feel for him. Sometimes, coaching isn’t about sending five guys out on the power play. You have to tell someone they’re not playing. We don’t want to see injuries. We don’t want to see people not [getting the job done]. But sometimes people don’t play for eight or nine games and they end up playing the last 70 games better than they’ve ever played.

“I thought Stecks did a really good job. Brooks Laich has done a good job because of his versatility and his speed. I think he has worked to become one of our faster skaters. I like Brooksie’s ability to kill penalties and I like his speed. It’s tough. We all want to see Sudsy in there. But there are only so many spots. Sometimes when you’re trying to do what you think is right when you’re trying to take the next step … I’m giving some people some really good opportunities here. And they appreciate it. It’s just up to them. It’s time. It’s time to step forward and take advantage of it.”

By the way, Marc Denis will start in goal for the Lightning against Olie Kolzig for the Caps.

Drought Perspective

October 22, 2007

Coming into the 2007-08 season, the Washington Capitals were mindful of the need to score more goals, but they were likely focused more on shaving goals against. Teams that score a lot of goals and teams that score relatively few goals are both well represented in the Stanley Cup playoffs every spring, but teams that give up a lot of goals are almost always on the golf course when the second season starts in April.

With the offseason additions of offensive minded players like centers Michael Nylander and Viktor Kozlov and power play specialist defenseman Tom Poti, the Capitals probably figured that scoring goals and scoring them on the power play would be the least of their worries this season.

So far, it hasn’t turned out that way.

Defensively, the Capitals have been fine. Even with the hiccup of a 7-3 loss at Buffalo on Oct. 13, Washington has allowed fewer than three goals a game thus far this season, and has allowed opponents to score at a lower rate than any campaign since 2002-03, the last time the Caps made the playoffs.

On the other side of the coin, Washington’s 14 goals scored are second fewest in the NHL. I noted in my Postgame Notebook after the loss to the Isles on Thursday that Washington had gone 15 straight games without scoring as many as four goals in a game. That streak extended to 16 games with Saturday’s 2-1 loss to Pittsburgh, and is now tied for the second longest such streak in franchise history. (More on that a bit later.)

A 7-1 Sunday afternoon whipping of the Tampa Bay Lightning at Verizon Center last Mar. 18 marks the last time the Caps scored more than three goals in a regular season game. Washington is 5-10-1 in that 16-game stretch and has been outscored by a combined 48-31.

Caps coach Glen Hanlon juggled his forward lines a bit at the team’s practice on Monday, and one reason he was able to do so was because left wing Alexander Semin – limited to just part of one game thus far this season because of an ankle injury – skated with his teammates for the entire practice, something he had not been able to do since late September.

“I’m trying to create some offense and we’ll see if that helps out a bit,” Hanlon offers.

Part of the team’s 2007-08 offensive woes can be attributed to the power play. If your extra-man unit is functioning at a reasonable rate, you’ll generally drop in a four-spot here and there because you’ll have a game where you score two or three on the power play alone. But it’s been a while since that’s happened for the Capitals, too.

Again dating back to last season, Washington is 8-for-67 (11.9%) on the power play during the 16-game stretch in which it has not scored as many as four goals in a game. The Caps have never been that anemic with the extra man over a full season. The worst Washington team ever on the power play was the 1977-78 bunch, a group that managed a meager 34 power play tallies over the course of the 80-game season and finished with a 12.2% success rate.

You have to go back to last Feb. 27 to find the last game in which Washington managed multiple power play goals in the same game. That was 25 games ago. Since hanging a 3-for-5 night on the Panthers in a 6-5 shootout loss that night, Washington has connected on just 14 of its 113 power play chances, a rate of 12.4%.

The Caps won’t use injuries as an excuse, but they hope Semin’s return will rejuvenate their attack and their power play.

“It’s not the reason we’ve lost,” says Hanlon. “We miss Alexander Semin. But we still have to be able to find other ways to win hockey games. We came [into the season] with what you saw today, two power play groups: a Kozlov group and a Nylander group. Once Semin went down, we sort of loaded up on one side and it looked like a lot of skill and not enough net presence and puck pursuit. I think that cost us. It was much better last game. So that hurt us.

“You start rotating people in and out of that Semin spot, and the longer it went it seemed like Michael [Nylander] and Nicklas [Backstrom] were having a chemistry and the third guy was like the third wheel on a date, like bringing your little brother on a date. So it wasn’t what we pictured. But again, we’re not making excuses. We’re 3-4. Other things have to be successful. Even without Alexander, we shouldn’t be where we are on the power play. We need to do better. And we commit a lot of time to it.”

The Caps have devoted a lot of practice time to the extra-man unit, and the team’s power play has shown some signs of coming out of the doldrums. It had only three power play opportunities in Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Pens, but managed better puck movement, more point shots and more traffic in front of the net. The lone Washington goal in the game came just seconds after the expiration of a Caps power play.

“Whenever it’s not going well you look for that silver lining,” admits Hanlon. “We tried to tell our guys that we felt that goal was a product of good movement on the power play and having good net presence.”

Another problem the Caps have had this season is getting shots on net. Washington has averaged 28 shots on goal per game this season, the same number it averaged in 2006-07. But many other intended missiles have missed their mark. The Caps have 196 shots on goal in seven games. Another 106 have been blocked en route and 93 have missed the net altogether. So more intended shots (199) have missed the mark than have gone on goal (196).

Opposing teams have 220 shots on goal, have had 79 blocked and have missed entirely on 67 in the same seven games.

“I think our [defensemen] have to do a better job of changing the angle [of their shots],” says Hanlon. “Every team plays [defensive] zone almost the same; they collapse, they come out to the point. If they’re in shooting lanes, we have to do a better job of just moving them a little bit. It’s hard to get pucks through now. A lot of teams, they start to use [the area] behind the net. Instead of just throwing it at the net, they get people set up behind the net and the cycle starts again because it’s so hard to get pucks through. It’s a skill. It’s an acquired skill to walk three or four feet, move, change the angle and find a new shooting lane. It takes composure and it takes poise. The good ones are better at it.”

The seven defensemen the Caps have employed this season have combined for 60 shots on goal. Another 51 have been blocked and 26 more have missed the net.

Alex Ovechkin’s normally finely honed radar is also off just a bit in the early going of this season. He is averaging better than five shots on goal per game, as he has done over the course of his career. Ovechkin has 37 shots on goal this season, and that’s more than twice as many as any other Capital. Nylander, Kozlov, Poti and Matt Pettinger are tied for second on the team with 16 shots on goal. But Ovechkin has had more shots blocked (17) and more that have missed altogether (18) than any other Cap has managed to put on the cage.

“When you get a situation where you’re whole group is not scoring enough, I think you press,” says Hanlon. “You shoot when maybe you shouldn’t be shooting. We’re all in this together. The one thing I like about Ovie in regards to that question is that he has kept all the team concepts. He is still doing all the things defensively. He plays the body. He is doing things that we’re extremely happy with. We just keep reassuring him that he has scored a lot of goals the last two years and he is going to score a lot of goals this year if he keeps on doing the things he is doing well.

“I still feel that this is as good as he has played since he has come here. From a coaching standpoint, I’m as happy as I’ve ever been with him. His intensity in practice, his conditioning, all his positioning is I think as good as it has been.”

It seems certain that the Caps will come out of this slump sooner rather than later, and Semin’s return to the lineup could be the catalyst the Caps need. Regardless, the team should take some solace in the fact that this drought is not nearly as bad as the one the inaugural Caps club of 1974-75 endured.

In between a 6-6 tie with the Rangers on Dec. 12 and a 6-3 win over Detroit on Jan. 26, the Caps went 19 games without scoring as many as four goals in a game. The team went 1-17-1 during that stretch, and was outscored by a combined 95-28.

As you’d expect, the power play was particularly putrid then. The Caps went 3-for-100 (3%) with the extra man in those 19 games, and were futile in 60 straight chances with the extra man during one part of that brutal stretch. The Caps scored as many shorthanded goals as they did power play goals during that span, and their power play was victimized for nine shorthanded goals against.

Ouch.

Noteworthy – When Carolina’s Mike Commodore and Pittsburgh’s Ryan Malone dropped the gloves and went at it in Friday’s Hurricanes-Penguins game, it left Washington as the lone NHL team without a fighting major this season. That was remedied the next night when the Caps got into a couple of dust-ups of their own with the Pens. Donald Brashear fought the Pens’ Georges Laraque and Matt Pettinger went with Pittsburgh’s Jordan Staal.