Archive for December 2007

The Joe

December 17, 2007

Just came back from the morning skate at Joe Louis Arena, and it is one terrific barn. After the Wings finished skating, we went into the Detroit room and it’s really something special.

There are three locker stalls there set aside for longtime Red Wing legends Gordie Howe, Ted Lindsay and Alex Delvecchio. Along the top of three of the walls of the room just below the ceilings are 26 framed photos of Red Wing legends, including the aforementioned threesome, plus Sid Abel (Brent Johnson’s grandfather) and a host of others. There were a few with Capital connections: Larry Murphy, Dino Ciccarelli and Roger Crozier. A 27th photo shows Howe, Lindsay and Delvecchio exiting the locker room to go on the ice at the old Olympia, the Red Wings’ previous home building here.

The fourth wall has likenesses of each of the 10 Stanley Cups the Red Wings have won.

Many NHL rooms have magnet or dry-erase boards with the league standings. The Red Wings do, too, but they take it a few steps further. They’ve got boards that track the power play and penalty killing “standings” around the league as well as the goals for and goals against standings (expressed in average per game) from around the league. It goes without saying that the Wings rank high on all five of those boards.

The walls of the hallways leading into the room have recent team photos and lists of players from those teams. Five members of this year’s Red Wings were also members of the 1997-98 Stanley Cup championship team that defeated the Capitals in the finals: Nicklas Lidstrom, Kris Draper, Kirk Maltby, Tomas Holmstrom and Chris Osgood.

The building brings back good memories to Johnson, whose grandfather brought him here frequently when he was a young boy.

“Fond memories,” he says. “Honestly, just the smell of this arena just brings you [back]. The aroma. Maybe it’s the beer downstairs.”

I know what he means. The smell of decades of stale beer and cheap cigars that permeated the seating bowl in the old Chicago Stadium is something I’ll never forget, and something I still miss.

Johnson was asked if he gets goosebumps when he looks up and sees his grandfather’s No. 12 hanging from the rafters.

“Oh yeah,” he admits. “My mom and I were talking yesterday. She bawled she said, the first game I played here and I was right underneath his jersey.”

Detroit head coach Mike Babcock, who is well on his way to becoming the first NHL coach ever to win 50 games in each of his first three seasons with a team, talked briefly about his team’s dominance at the Joe, where they are 14-2-1 this season.

“You have to be dominant at home,” he says. “The team getting off their flight has to know there is no chance for points.”

The Caps hope to prove otherwise in a few hours. It’s Dominik Hasek for the Wings tonight, and Olie Kolzig for the Caps.

From Hockey Bay to Hockeytown

December 16, 2007

DETROIT — The Capitals departed warm and muggy Tampa Bay — where it was 76 degrees after Washington’s 3-2 win over the host Lightning last night — for cold and snowy Detroit, where it is currently 27 degrees. It was snowing when we pulled in here just before 2 a.m. today, and it’s still snowing this afternoon. I’m not really sure how much snow is on the ground. This weather shock rivals one we endured last January when we left 81-degree Miami for sub-zero Ottawa.

Today is a richly deserved day off for the team. Tomorrow, the Caps face the league’s best and hottest team in what will be Washington’s seventh game in 11 nights.

After letting a winnable game slip through their fingers at home against Buffalo on Friday, Saturday’s triumph qualifies as a character win for the Caps. Washington was determined to keep the Lightning to two goals or less and it did so. Vincent Lecavalier got his two points, but the Caps kept Marty St. Louis in check, even though he skated 27:04. St. Louis averages 24:44 a night and he had three goals and six points in the previous three meetings between the Caps and Bolts, so neutralizing him was key.

With the rugged start they had this season, the Caps are in a position where it’s important for them to win games in chunks, and to avoid losing them in chunks.

“I think it was a real important game to always show that you can bounce back,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau after the game. “And it was a team win because I thought everybody contributed. Alex [Ovechkin] said to me coming off the ice, ‘It wasn’t my night.’ On a night like that when everybody else can step up, that’s a good indicator of you becoming a good team.”

The Caps got goals from less-than-likely sources in Tomas Fleischmann, Dave Steckel and Brian Pothier. Both Fleischmann and Pothier had been healthy scratches recently, and Steckel’s goal was his second of the season.

Fleischmann has been a prolific scorer in the AHL, and I asked Boudreau before last night’s game about the difference between that Fleischmann and the one we’ve seen in the NHL.

“He’s got to think a little quicker, and I talked to him about this today,” said Boudreau. “In the AHL, he would be able to go right next to a guy and make a move and the guy wouldn’t be able to react to him. The sticks are so much better and the positioning is so much better here. He’s trying the same stuff but at the same time he’s got to do that a second earlier. If he does that, then he’ll be successful.

“You watch him in practice and he has the moves and he has the great vision. You scratch your head when he’s not successful on a consistent basis, because we’ve seen him play great games. I told him, ‘We need more consistency out of you if you’re going to be a top six forward.’”

Fleischmann’s goal was his first in more than a month, and it came a night after he sat out as a healthy scratch in a 5-3 loss to the Sabres.

“I don’t know who I’ve got to sit out next,” joked Boudreau. “It was great to see Flash [score]. He has always been one of my favorite guys and for him to get two points is [great]. He can make the plays. He’s just got to be determined and he’s got to say, ‘Okay, I can’t be satisfied with that. I’m going to do the same thing on Monday against the team that traded me.’”

The Caps have now defeated all four Southeast Division rivals since Boudreau took over and are 4-1-1 vs. Southeast foes with Boudreau behind the bench.

Here’s another interesting sidebar bit from last night’s game. (And for even more interesting sidebar bits on Saturday night’s win in Tampa Bay, check out my postgame notebook.) Pothier’s game-winner came on a third period power play. That power play came about when Lightning defenseman Shane O’Brien clipped Caps center Brooks Laich with a high stick in the corner to the left of the Tampa Bay goal. No stranger to the penalty box, O’Brien has logged 71 PIM in 33 games and ranks ninth in the league in that department.

The tussle between O’Brien and Laich ended up being the key play of the game. And it drew the ire of Lightning coach John Tortorella.

“We’re taking too many penalties,” said the Tampa Bay coach after the game. “[O’Brien’s] got to be responsible with that stick. He’s had a problem with that all year.”

It wasn’t the first time Laich and O’Brien have tangled on the frozen sheet.

Back in the spring of 2006, Boudreau’s Hershey Bears roared their way to a Calder Cup championship. Their biggest hurdle was a hard-fought, seven-game Eastern Conference finals series with the Portland Pirates. O’Brien was a member of that Pirates team, a hard-nosed defenseman who logged a lot of ice time, played a chippy style and was not averse to running his mouth.

“We go back,” Laich said of he and O’Brien, after Saturday’s win in Tampa. “We have a little history that goes back to the Hershey-Portland series. It was just a battle in the corner, he got his stick up on me and he started running his mouth. Petty makes a great pass to Potsie, and Potsie puts it top shelf and that ends up being the difference. It’s something that we talked about before the game, winning the special teams battle. We get one on the power play, they don’t and we win by one.

“I guess Tom Brady said it best a couple weeks ago, ‘Well done is better than well said.’ At that time I wasn’t interested in getting into a chirping match. Fifteen minutes left in the game and we needed that win. Fortunately, we got it.”

Finally, I’ll leave you with this thought. I could see Brent Johnson getting the start here tomorrow when the Caps take on the Wings.

Neither Caps goaltender has had particularly great success against the Red Wings during his career. Including the playoffs, Johnson is 2-8 lifetime against the Wings. His last win against Detroit came in a Stanley Cup playoff game on May 7, 2002. His only regular season win over the Wings was less than a month before that.

Kolzig is 2-12-1 lifetime against the Wings, including the 1998 Stanley Cup finals. His last win over Detroit came on Oct. 31, 2000 at MCI Center. In the last 15 years, the only Caps goalies to win here at the Joe are Kolzig (Apr. 7, 2000) and Rastislav Stana (Nov. 24, 2003).

Johnson hails from the Detroit area, and his grandfather (Sid Abel) is a hockey legend in these parts, having played, coached and managed the Wings. A member of the vaunted Production Line, Abel is a member of the Hockey Hall of Fame and he frequently took his young grandson along to games and practices back in the day.

Futhermore, although he has played sparingly of late, Johnson has played well when he has played. Since the beginning of November, Johnson is 2-1-1 with a 2.12 goals against average and a .920 save pct. in five appearances (four starts). Kolzig is 3-2 in the month of December, but his 3.18 goals against average and .869 save pct. aren’t up to his usual standards.

We’ll know by this time tomorrow. In the meantime, we’re slogging around in the snow here in Hockeytown.

One more thing: with Michael Nylander now back for two games and showing he’s healthy, the Caps today reassigned forward Joe Motzko to Hershey of the AHL. He won’t be playing for the Bears tonight, however. Hershey’s scheduled 5 p.m. game today has been postponed because of inclement weather.

Hockey Night in Hockey Bay

December 15, 2007

TAMPA BAY — I’m high atop the St. Pete Times Forum more than an hour before the Caps are set to take on the Tampa Bay Lightning here. The weather here is muggy and balmy, but we’ll be flying into sub-freezing Detroit as soon as this game is over.

It will be interesting to see how the Caps respond here tonight. I thought last night’s was the most frustrating and disappointing in a series of frustrating and disappointing losses this season. Maxim Afinogenov’s goal late in the second seemed to turn the tide in favor of the Sabres, but had Washington cashed in on a couple of glorious chances earlier, it wouldn’t have made such a difference. All four of Buffalo’s goals (prior to the empty-netter) could have been avoided, and Buffalo looked as beatable as I’ve seen them against the Caps in recent memory.

Now, the Caps come into a hornet’s nest. The Lightning is smarting from a 9-6 home ice spanking at the hands of the Calgary Flames here on Thursday night, and they’re bound to come out flying here this evening. Tampa Bay is one of the best three teams on home ice this season, and Detroit — the Caps’ next stop on this short trip — is the best home ice team in the league.

Instead of bringing a four-game winning streak on the road and feeling pretty good about themselves, the Caps will need to play extremely well to avoid a three-game losing streak that would wipe out the three home ice wins last week. And, a win last night would have pulled the Caps within seven points of the struggling Carolina Hurricanes atop the Southeast Division standings.

This one tonight is big, needless to say.

Some lineup tweaks, and Brent Johnson will be in goal for the Capitals. Matt Pettinger returns to the left side of a line with Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Michael Nylander will center Tomas Fleischmann (who is back in the lineup after being a healthy scratch last night) and Alexander Semin. The checking unit of Dave Steckel between Quintin Laing and Matt Bradley will remain intact. And Viktor Kozlov will center Donald Brashear and Brooks Laich. The defense pairs will be the same as they were last night against Buffalo.

Captain Karl

December 14, 2007

Congrats to Caps defense prospect Karl Alzner, Washington’s first choice (fifth overall) in the 2007 NHL E.try Draft, who today was named as captain of the Canadian National Junior Team. Alzner and his teammates fly off to Europe today in pursuit of Team Canada’s fourth consecutive gold medal at the World Junior Championships in the Czech Republic.

Junior Achievement

December 14, 2007

Congratulations to Caps defense prospects Karl Alzner and Josh Godfrey who were named to the Team Canada roster for the upcoming World Junior Championship in the Czech Republic. Alzner was a member of last year’s gold medalist Canadian team; he and forward Brad Marchand are the only two returnees from last year’s championship team.

Sixteen members of Team Canada roster — including both Alzner and Godfrey — played in the Summit Series against Russia late last summer. The Canadians went 7-0-1 in that tourney.

Alzner and Drew Doughty of the OHL’s Guelph Storm are expected to form Canada’s top defensive duo and are likely to draw the assignment of shutting down the opposition’s top line. Alzner, who plays for the WHL’s Calgary Hitmen, is expected to make a strong bid for a roster spot in Washington next fall and this dose of international experience won’t hurt his cause.

Godfrey is a power play specialist with a booming point shot who plays for the OHL’s Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. A third Caps prospect, forward Mathieu Perreault of Acadie-Bathurst in the QMJHL, missed the cut and was not named to the roster.

The Canadians will set out for Europe later today for pre-competition camp as they seek a fourth consecutive gold medal in WJC competition.

What’s the Over/Under …

December 13, 2007

On how long it takes Larry Brooks to pen a piece declaring that Mike Green should be awarded to the Rangers because they’re the center of the global universe world?

Lineup Tweak

December 12, 2007

The starting line for tonight’s tilt between the caps and Rangers is Donald Brashear (who took the warm-up wearing one of the red mullet wigs) on the left side of a line with Brooks Laich and Joe Motkzo. That puts Tomas Fleischmann back up with Viktor Kozlov and Alexander Semin. As expected, Brian Pothier is back in the lineup and will start on defense alongside John Erskine.

And the Rangers will start out with Blair Betts between Ryan Hollweg and Colton Orr.