Caps Must Step it Up
After a 1-1-1 road trip against Southeast Division teams it is clear that the Washington Capitals must find a way to take their game to a higher level if they want to win the division. The only reason the Caps won a game on the latest road trip was because goalie Olie Kolzig stole a game from Tampa Bay last Saturday night in a 3-2 Washington win. Kolzig was phenomenal stopping 39 of 41 shots. The Caps are now 10-10-3 in their division and that mark must be improved on if the team expects to secure the #3 playoff seed in the eastern conference. The Caps have 22 games left and only two of the next 15 games are against Southeast division foes before Washington plays its last seven games against division opponents.
Alex Ovechkin was held pointless in his last two games but luckily Alexander Semin stepped up with a goal and an assist in Tampa, including the game winning goal late in the contest, to provide the lone Caps win of the road trip.
The Capitals defense continues to struggle and with Tom Poti injured and Milan Jurcina also out on Saturday Coach Bruce Boudreau went with Steve Eminger and rookie Sami Lepisto (first NHL game) to complete the defensive corps. Eminger continues to prove to be a first round bust and why he was on the ice in the last five minutes on Saturday night is beyond me.
Fortunately for the Caps, they still have the inside track on winning the division despite trailing by two points at the present time. Carolina is in first place but they lost captain Rod Brind’Amour for the season last week (torn ACL) and their defense and goaltending is a disaster. The Hurricanes have also played two more games than Washington. Hurricanes GM Jim Rutherford made a trade last week to try and bolster his team by dealing forward Cory Stillman and defensemen Mike Commodore to Ottawa for forward Patrick Eaves and defensemen Joe Corvo. According to one NHL scout this was a very low impact trade. Atlanta is still trying to figure out if they are going to keep or trade forward Marian Hossa and Florida is in the same boat with Olli Jokinen. Tampa Bay has goaltending issues, a free agent defenseman who wants too much money in the off-season (Dan Boyle), and yet another new owner to deal with. Bottom line: The Caps should win this division even if GM George McPhee does nothing at the trade deadline.
The Caps host the Islanders on Wednesday night, travel to Carolina on Saturday, and come home to face the Devils at the Verizon Center on Sunday.
So what conference will provide this year’s Stanley Cup winner? The western conference is 67-39-12 against the east so far this season so clearly that is the better conference but according to one NHL scout once you get down to the top teams in each conference things start to even out. In the east the New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators (assuming Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley are healthy), and Montreal Canadiens appear to have separated themselves as far as Cup contenders are concerned (I’m not sold on the Penguins yet). In the western conference the top teams are Detroit and Anaheim. The Dallas Stars have won nine of their last 10 games but I can’t see them making a run at the Cup with their current roster and let’s face it, Stars goalie Marty Turco has never played well in the post-season.
Anyone who caught last Saturday’s Edmonton-Vancouver game got to see some old time hockey as the teams combined for 193 penalty minutes in a fight filled game. The game featured 10 fighting majors in the last 40 seconds of a 4-2 Canucks win. The teams play again on Thursday, March 20th in Edmonton.
Speaking of late game altercations, the next Ducks-Calgary Flames game on Friday, February 29th ought to be interesting. Anaheim thug George Parros took a cheap shot at star Flames defensemen Dion Phaneuf’s knees in the waning moments so expect the Mike Keenan led Calgary crew to look for revenge in Anaheim on the 29th. One thing that is puzzling to me: Why was Flames Captain Jarome Iginla fighting third line checker Travis Moen with 29 seconds left in the game? All that could come of that situation is Iginla gets hurt. Some other Flames need to step up and take care of the dirty work and Iginla needs to be smarter and not get drawn into stuff with lower tier players. Flames fans have to be extremely frustrated watching this team this year. Anaheim likes to play on the edge with their toughness and if you are not a Ducks fan then they are an easy team to dislike. I am not a Ducks fan so I wouldn’t mind seeing someone clean their clocks and knock them out of the playoffs in the first round. But that will be a tough chore considering the talent on the current Anaheim squad.
Forget about Peter Forsberg coming back and shifting the balance of power in the NHL for the stretch run. Forsberg’s agent told the league today that his client will not be back this season due to recurring problems with his surgically repaired right foot. So how big of a deal is this? According to ESPN’s Scott Burnside several GM’s have been quoted as saying that the Forsberg decision was holding up trades. Meanwhile, another NHL scout told me that Forsberg is only a shadow of his former self and would not have made that much of an impact anyways. For proof of that theory just look at last year’s playoffs when the Nashville Predators were knocked out in the first round despite moving players and draft picks to Philadelphia for Forsberg at the trade deadline.
Speaking of Nashville, former Caps GM David Poile has his team in playoff position despite the fire sale his franchise endured after last season when former owner Craig Leopold put the team up for sale. Poile, who made the playoffs 14 of the 15 seasons he GM’d in Washington, has a new ownership group in place and recently signed free agent to be forward J.P. Dumont to a four year contract. The Predators are currently 6th in the western conference with 69 points.
The Detroit Red Wings came into tonight’s contest with the Colorado Avalanche having lost six straight games but pounded the Avs 4-0 at the Pepsi Center in Denver to end that skid. Henrik Zetterberg had two goals, Pavel Datysuk added three assists, and goalie Chris Osgood saved all 18 shots to snap his personal losing streak. The bad news: Detroit defensemen and arguably the league’s MVP, Nicklas Lidstrom, injured his knee on a check from Ian Laperriere in the first period. It is not known how long Lidstrom will be sidelined. The hit from Laperriere appeared to be clean but the Red Wings still took exception to it and Aaron Downey beat the stuffing out of the pesky Laperriere about 10 minutes after the hit. Downey and Laperriere went at it again in the closing minutes.
The Lidstrom hit reminded me of a story Craig Laughlin once told from his playing days back in the 1980’s. The Caps were in Philadelphia to take on the Flyers and in the first period Laughlin threw a big check on Flyers star defensemen Mark Howe. A few minutes later Laughlin was waiting for a face-off and out skated Philadelphia goon Dave Brown who lined up next to Craig and told him “You’ll never hit Mark Howe again.” Laughlin, laughing now as he tells the story, could only reply “Ok” and said he never did hit Howe again. That was in the old NHL when certain players were untouchable. Now players seem to lack respect for the top players and some of the third and fourth line players just don’t know their roles.
Can’t Miss Game of the Week: Ottawa at Pittsburgh on Saturday at 3pm on CBC (Hockey Night in Canada day game). There is a chance that Penguins star Sydney Crosby, who has resumed practicing with contact, could be back in the line-up for this game but if not Evgeni Malkin will lead the Pens against the Senators top line of Alfredsson, Heatley, and Jason Spezza. Ottawa currently is tied for the top spot in the eastern conference (New Jersey) but the Penguins are only two points behind.