Archive for March 2008

More From Espo

March 31, 2008

It’s always good to talk hockey with Phil Esposito, but my conversation last week in Tampa with the Hockey Hall of Famer was even more enjoyable than usual. Unprompted by me, Espo lauded Alex Ovechkin for the Hart Trophy regardless of Washington’s postseason fortunes, or lack thereof.

I wrote up my case for Ovie on washingtoncaps.com, and there were a few quotes from Espo that I found enlightening and interesting, but which weren’t necessarily germane to the piece. Rather than let them wither on the cutting room, I’ll share them with you here.

I mentioned to Espo how different he and Ovie are as players, and this is what he had to say about who helped him get to 60 goals (and beyond):
“My wingers. See, we played it different. Harry Sinden was the coach the first year I got there and he said, ‘We’re going to make you our goal scorer.’ I said, ‘Fine. Where?’ I always thought [of the area from] the top of the top of the face-off dots – the hash marks – in to the net as a funnel. That’s all we used to do. [Wayne] Cashman, [Ken] Hodge and I, if you were in trouble, get it into the middle of the rink by the hash marks and I’ll be there. I didn’t look where I shot but I got it on the net.”

The secret to his success:
“Lots of shots. Even after the 550 that one year, the next year – I’ll never forget – I had 66. And there was a big headline in the paper: ‘Esposito Slumps.’ That year I think I had around 400 shots on goal. Let’s not forget that I played 35 or 38 minutes a game, every game. We played three lines. I saw Ovie was on for the whole power play; I played the whole power play. And then I killed penalties a little bit, too, which he will do down the line. Especially if you’re behind. You put him out there because you never know.”

Perfectionism:
“For me, scoring was all about hitting the net. I hated myself when I missed the net when I had an opportunity. I’d go out the next day at practice, if I missed two or three from a certain area, I’d go and get two or three pucks and I’d stand there and look up and I’d shoot to try to hit the goalpost in, goalpost in. I hated when I missed the net with an opportunity, because you don’t get that many opportunities.”

More Buses and Planes, Please

March 30, 2008

After six straight games on the road, it’s great to be home again. The Caps will close out the regular season with three straight at home, and the big house on F St. figures to be shaking pretty good on Tuesday when the Hurricanes visit with a chance to clinch the Southeast Division title in the Caps’ barn.

What the Caps want more than anything is to get back out on the road again. The reality of it is that Washington could win out and not make the playoffs. They could finish the season with a seven-game winning streak and wins in 11 of their last 12 games and be on the outside looking in. The Caps could finish in a tie for the Southeast Division title, and still not be playing when the Stanley Cup playoffs get underway next week.

It was hard to see this coming. You figure a 5-1 trip puts you into the top eight, and maybe even gives you enough room for error that you could finish 2-1 and still make the playoffs. At Saturday’s morning skate before the Caps blanked the Florida Panthers 3-0 in their regular season road finale, I mentioned to Caps coach Bruce Boudreau that if he was told before the trip he’d be going into the final game with a shot at a 5-1 trip, he probably would have expected his team to be among the top eight in the Eastern Conference standings, too.

“Yeah, I expected it,” he said. “I expected to be 5-1, but I definitely would have thought 88 points would have put us right there. Philly’s got 89, and they’ve got four games left, so we have to win two more games than they have to win to catch them. Boston has five games left. We’ll know a little bit more about their fate when they face Ottawa this afternoon by the time game time comes. Carolina just doesn’t lose two in a row. They spanked Atlanta pretty good last night. I just firmly believe if you get 94 points — boy, if it takes 95 points to make the playoffs with maybe two teams having 102 points when it’s all over, that says something about the parity even though it won’t make me feel any better.”

Since that conversation of course, Philly and Boston have both padded their totals by a pair, and the Hurricanes finally absorbed a regulation loss. Several teams ahead of Washington are mathematically catchable, but the Caps probably have to win all three remaining games to stay alive.

“It’s tough,” says Caps defenseman Shaone Morrisonn. “Everybody is winning. There is so much character in this league. Everybody realizes it’s so tight and we’re not getting much help. But we can’t really concentrate on what other people do. We just have to keep winning. We have to win out just to have a chance to get in the playoffs.

“We put ourselves in this position and we realize that. Every game is so important, it’s like a playoff game. The guys have been great in here in battling back after being down a couple of goals. We’ve never out of it when we’ve got such great character and heart on this team.”

As the players boarded the bus for the airport after Saturday’s win in South Florida, almost all of them had their phones open, hitting the refresh button for a final score from Tampa. The Lightning obliged, as ex-Cap Jeff Halpern did his former teammates a solid with a third-period game-winner to take out the Canes. The Caps are hoping for more bus rides and plane rides in their very near future.

Washington will take Sunday off before re-convening for practice at Kettler tomorrow. The Caps will be playing their final three home games this week for a chance to go back on the road.

Musical Inspiration

March 28, 2008

I think I can deal with hearing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin'” another 20 times or so between now and the official start of summer. Musical tastes and preferences are a very personal thing, and I’m not much of a Journey fan. But the theme song has come to signify a Caps win and I’ve never minded those at all.

Rookie Caps center Nicklas Backstrom has made many contributions on the ice this season, and one of his off-ice feats was to introduce the song into the heavy rotation of the Caps’ postgame winning locker room mix a month or more ago. It comes right after Kanye West’s “Good Life” and is followed by more Journey stuff, but only on nights when the Caps are triumphant. As John Lennon might say, “Whatever Gets You Through the Night.”

I’m not positive, but I believe you can trace the history of sports teams adopting theme songs back to the 1942 St. Louis Cardinals. Those Cards had some common ground with our ’07-08 Caps. Not much was expected of either team, and the ’42 Cards were 10 games behind the Dodgers for the N.L. pennant on Aug. 15. St. Louis won 43 of its last 51 games to take the pennant and then took out the Yankees in five games in the World Series.

Cards trainer Doc Weaver began playing Spike Jones and The City Slickers’ “Pass the Biscuits Mirandy” in the dugout and it wasn’t long before the players were attributing their success on the field to the song. Later vintage Cardinal teams also dusted off the tune with great success. Both the 1946 and 1964 world champion Cardinals teams played “Pass the Biscuits Mirandy” incessantly.

The Caps aren’t the first team to adopt Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin,'” either. The 2005 Chicago White Sox wore it out on their way to a World Series title that year, their first since 1917. The Sox went as far as bringing Journey lead singer Steve Perry into the clubhouse at times during the postseason, and to the team’s victory parade after they won it all.

  

Two springs ago when the Hershey Bears won the Calder Cup championship, we media types were treated to the strains of O.A.R.’s “That Was a Crazy Game of Poker,” which was pretty cool.

I’m sure there are plenty more examples, especially in recent pro sports history. But those are the ones with which I am most familiar.

As I mentioned yesterday on the podcast, I’m a big fan of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” as a sort of theme song of this year’s model of the Caps, but like I said before, musical preferences are a very personal thing and everyone’s mileage will vary. Nevertheless, I’ve had a “Caps Win” mix on my i-Pod for most of the season, one that I enjoy playing on my long ride home from games at Verizon Center or on the plane ride after road games.

Here’s what’s on it:
Curtis Mayfield — “Move on Up”
The Yayhoos — “Never Give An Inch”
Jason and the Scorchers — “Victory Road”
Perfect — “Better Days”
Replacements — “Bastards of Young”
Radio Nationals — “Golden”
The Fleshtones — “Right Side of A Good Thing”
Doves — “Catch The Sun”
Staples Singers — “I’ll Take You There”
Grand Champeen — “Cottonmouth”
The Fleshtones — “Hitsburg USA”
The Clash — “I’m Not Down”
Nathaniel Mayer — “You Gotta Work”
Jon Dee Graham — “One Moment”
Steve Earle — “All of My Life”
Sonny Landreth — “Shootin’ For the Moon”
The Stranglers — “Get A Grip On Yourself”
Dinosaur Jr. — “The Wagon”
Mason Rufner — “Gypsy Blood”
Billy Joe Shaver — “If I Gave My Soul”
Sonic Youth — “Kool Thing”
The Suburbs — “Rattle My Bones”
Eric Lindell — “Sunny Daze”
Drive-By Truckers — “Where the Devil Don’t Stay”
Wipers — “Over The Edge”
Urge Overkill — “Sister Havana”
Tommy Stinson — “Motivation”
Cracker — “Let’s Go For a Ride”
Marah — “Float Away”
The Gourds — “Grievin’ And Smokin'”
Howlin’ Wolf — “Wang Dang Doodle”
Magic Slim and the Teardrops — “Get Your Business Straight”
Steve Wynn — “There Will Come a Time”
Danny and Dusty — “Raise the Roof”
George Baker Selection — “Little Green Bag”
Eels — “Goddamn Right It’s A Beautiful Day”
Replacements — “Can’t Hardly Wait”
Sunnyland Slim — “House Rock”
Maktub — “You Can’t Hide”
Booker T and the MGs — “Green Onions”

I added that last one after last Friday’s win in Atlanta.

Dig in and dig.

Caps Sign Perreault

March 28, 2008

The Caps today announced that they’ve signed center Mathieu Perreault to a three-year, entry level deal beginning next season.

Perreault, 20, was the most valuable player in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League (QMJHL) in 2006-07 and led the QMJHL in scoring this year. A 5’9”, 166-pound native of Drummondville, Quebec, Perreault recorded 114 points (34 goals, 80 assists) in 65 games for Acadie-Bathurst in 2007-08, his second consecutive 100-point season. He led the Titan to a third-place finish in the East Division and a berth in the playoffs, where they are currently tied in the first round, two games apiece, with St. John’s.

Perreault led the QMJHL in assists in 2007-08 and established an Acadie-Bathurst club record with a 27-game point-scoring streak. He was a two-time QMJHL Offensive Player of the Week and the league’s Player of the Month in March.

Perreault was Washington’s sixth-round choice, 177th overall, in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Ward, Don’t You Think You’ve Been a Little Hard on the Caps?

March 25, 2008

In Raleigh tonight, the Capitals play their biggest game of the year against division rival Carolina, a team that gave them a 6-3 thumping on their last visit here on Feb. 23. A loss tonight ends any hope of a Southeast Division title for Washington.

They’ll face a Carolina team that has won four straight at home, a Carolina team that is 14-3-1 in its last 18 games, and a Carolina team that has averaged 3.56 goals per game (Ottawa leads the league with 3.16 goals per game on the season) over its last 18 games, despite missing four of its top six forwards (Rod Brind’Amour, Matt Cullen, Ray Whitney and Justin Williams) at the moment.

And they’ll face Cam Ward.

A few days back we spent some time discussing the trouble the Caps had been having with Atlanta goaltender Kari Lehtonen. Those woes pale in comparison to facing Ward, who is on the Martin Brodeur Path of Capitals Dominance career path.

This is Ward’s third season in the league. He is 10-3 with three shutouts, a 2.50 goals against average and a .916 save pct. against Washington in his career. This season, Ward is 4-0 with a shutout, a 1.75 goals against average and a .949 save pct. against the Caps.

I asked Bruce Boudreau about Lehtonen before the Atlanta game, and the Caps broke the hex. If it works, don’t fix it, so I asked him about Ward this morning. (I’m not superstitious; just a little stitious.)

“He’s good,” says the Caps bench boss. “I don’t know anything about goaltending except the ones that stop the pucks. When he is on top of his game, he’s not giving up rebounds. He’s squaring up very similar to a lot of goalies. You can tell he has been on his game for the last [while]. This is the [15th] game in a row he has started and their record speaks for itself. He had one bad game in Buffalo. Other than that, he has been airtight.

Then Boudreau laid out the formula for success.

“We know we’re going to have to get traffic in front of the net. We’re going to have to drive to the net and have two or three guys getting second and third shots to beat him. That’s what they do. That’s exactly how they win. Their guys are attacking nets with a voracious appetite these days. They get the second and third shots and they’re willing to pay the price and they’ve been successful doing it.”

In other words, play how they played in the third period in Atlanta on Friday. Works for me.

Washington’s last win over Ward was on Jan. 27, 2007 at Verizon Center. He has defeated them six times since. The Caps have defeated Ward in Carolina only once, back on Mar. 29, 2006 when they triumphed, 5-1. Matt Bradley scored twice in that game, Alex Ovechkin netted his 48th of the season on a Washington power play, Chris Clark scored shorthanded and Brian Willsie had the other goal.

In going 6-0 in his last six starts against the Caps, Ward has allowed just five even strength goals in those six games. That brings us to the other important aspect of tonight’s game: special teams.

Washington is 12-for-41 (29.3%) with the extra man in its last 10 games, despite going 0-for-6 on the power play in its last two games. Carolina’s much-maligned penalty killing unit is out of last place and now ranks 29th in the league. In their last 11 games, the Hurricanes have killed off 39 of 42 (92.9%) opposition power play chances.

On the other side of that special teams spectrum, the Caps have surrendered at least one power play goal in each of their last four games, matching their longest streak of that kind this season. Carolina’s extra-man unit is 12th in the league this season, but it has been clicking at a 22% pace over the last dozen games.

What’s even more alarming is that the Canes have had 68 power play chances in those last 12 games. (For comparison’s sake, the Capitals have had 49 chances of their own in their last 12 games, and Carolina has only had to kill 46 opposition power plays in the last 12 games.) If the Caps are faced with having to kill five or six or seven Carolina power plays tonight, it could get ugly. The Canes were 4-for-7 on the power play against Washington the last time the Caps played here on Feb. 23.

“I think special teams against these guys are really important, as well as anybody,” says Boudreau. “But they scored four [power play goals] against us last time. Obviously we have to do something to be able to defend that. We can’t allow that to happen. At this time of year 5-on-5 everybody plays so tight, and everybody plays a little bit more defensively than they would normally. So special teams become even more paramount in the whole scheme of things.

“We know we have to beat them 5-on-4. Hopefully we win that battle. Usually if we anticipate a close game and you win the special teams battle by a goal, it may make the difference.”

Seeking Some Soul in the South

March 25, 2008

As the Caps’ team bus slinked its way through the late-night Atlanta traffic en route to the airport after Friday’s 5-3 win over the Thrashers, the unmistakable wail of James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good)” loudly blared forth from the big vehicle’s sound system. While the song was playing, the bus passed the exit for interstate 20 east to Augusta, where the ECHL rink in that Georgia town bears Brown’s name.

If you get on 20 headed west, you’re on your way towards Memphis. Seconds after J.B.’s signature song ended came the strains of another southern soul favorite, Booker T. and the M.G.’s “Green Onions.” Booker T. and his boys were the house band at Stax Records in Memphis for years.

I couldn’t help but think that BT and the MGs’ “Time is Tight” would have been more appropriate. Because time most certainly is tight for the Capitals.

Less than two weeks remain in the season, and the Caps have only six games remaining. Three of those games are on the road – the next three – and Washington finishes up with three at home. We’re in Raleigh now, where the Capitals will take on Southeast Division leading Carolina on Tuesday.

It’s funny how some Caps I talked to after Wednesday’s 5-0 loss in Chicago talked about the importance of forgetting about that game as soon as possible. So it was with no small sense of irony that I noted the postgame musings of that noted hockey philosopher Alex Ovechkin after he and his mates saved the season by storming from behind to win in Atlanta with arguably the team’s most perfect period of the season.

“We have to forget this,” he said. “It was big game, big win. But next day will be next day. We just have to play the same. We play well tonight and we have to continue that way.”

This much is true. But rather than forget it, I’d like to see the Caps reproduce that period 18 more times between now and the end of the season. I’d like their chances of getting in if they could pull that off.

Even if they did, they’d still need help.

“Teams at this time of the year are still in control of their own destiny,” observes Brooks Laich. “There are still guys fighting for spots and teams are going to play desperate and play hard and try and get all the points they can. It’s tough to watch when you sit out and you see other teams gain ahead of you because it’s out of your hands. But as long as we take care of our business I think we’ll be all right.”

If you’re headed from Atlanta to Memphis, be sure to stop in Muscle Shoals, Ala. That’s where the Staples Singers recorded “I’ll Take You There” with the renowned Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section.

If the Caps show enough soul on this last road trip through the south, it might be enough to take them “there” for the first time in five years.

Solving Lehtonen

March 22, 2008

The Atlanta Thrashers have not been very good lately, and when they have, it’s often because of goaltender Kari Lehtonen.

Back on Feb. 2 at Verizon Center, the Caps outshot the Thrashers 36-13 but couldn’t beat Lehtonen and lost 2-0. Eleven days later in Atlanta, the Caps fired 18 first period shots on Lehtonen, but did not score. Washington fell 3-2 in the shootout that night despite outshooting the Thrashers 41-28.

Last Friday in Washington, the Caps outshot Atlanta 37-12, and only Lehtonen’s fine goaltending kept the score from being worse than the 4-1 final. So despite outshooting the Thrashers by 114-53 in their three previous meetings, Washington had managed only three of a possible six points in the three previous meetings.

Lehtonen had a .937 save pct. against Washington in the last four meetings between the two teams, but the Caps managed to go 2-1-1.

Volume, volume, turn up the volume.

From previous meetings, it seemed as though Lehtonen often gets better as the game goes along if he’s not beaten early. I mentioned that to Brooks Laich after the morning skate, and said Friday’s game might be one where the Caps would need a good first period and an early goal or two.

“We’d like to,” he replied. “That would be an ideal start. One of the things we’d like to do that we didn’t do in the Chicago game is bury our chances. We’ve been getting chances but we have to make sure they go into the back of the net. A goalie like Lehtonen when he gets on a roll, he just keeps going and going and gets more and more confident. So if we can get one or two on him early and after that keep getting some shots and some traffic we’ll be okay.”

Bruce Boudreau also has the sense that Lehtonen is like a baseball pitcher that is vulnerable early. Get to him in the second or third inning, because if you don’t, he’ll be sailing along in the seventh.

“I agree with you,” said Boudreau. “The first game we played them that I was here [Dec. 7] we beat them 6-3 and I think we scored three in the first. Once we scored the first one, he was down. And when we scored the second one, he was down further. He’s a good goalie that just gets better and better and better. Sometimes the only thing that lets him down is his teammates in front of him. We have to get traffic in front of the net. If you watch other teams against him that are successful, it’s because when the puck goes to the net, two or three guys are going to the net like wild men and that’s what we have to do against him.”

The Caps got 22 shots in the first two period of Friday’s game, but only beat Lehtonen once. He made a few strong saves, especially at the end of the second period when the Caps turned up the jets on him a bit. But it wasn’t until the third period when they finally began driving the net and penetrating the suspect Atlanta defense that they began to have success. The Caps displayed their resilience once again, rebounding to win a must-win game, another thing Boudreau talked about earlier in the day.

“I think it’s real important to show that we can bounce back,” he said prior to the game. “That’s the No. 1 thing. We have to be able to bounce back and we can’t afford any lethargy at this time of the year. If this game game 18 or 20, sometimes you go from a winning streak to having a hard time getting back into it. We’re not afforded that luxury. We have to come out and we know what’s been successful against them from other teams as well as ourselves. We know their goaltending is great. If we sit back and have 18, 19 shots on them, that’s pretty easy for a guy like Lehtonen to stop. So we have to pelt them. If we get 40 shots and can can four goals, hopefully we can hold them to less.”

The Caps’ fourth goal came on their 44th shot. They added a fifth on an empty-netter. They held the Thrashers to fewer, and they live to fight another day.