It is often said that the mark of a good team is one that doesn’t fold its tent when it gets behind and for the first time since the 2002-2003 season I can honestly say that the Washington Capitals finally look like a good team on a fairly consistent basis. After seeing the Caps dominate the Edmonton Oilers in the first period yet trail, 2-0, I said to myself, no biggie, this team is going to come back and win this game. What a thriller it was with the Caps prevailing, 5-4, in a shootout that saw 24 players take penalty shots with only one going in (Matt Bradley in the 12th round). The majority of the credit for this turnaround continues to go to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau who not only changed the Caps style of play when he took over but changed the attitude on this team and got the players to have more confidence in themselves.
Olie Kolzig, who clearly was frustrated by being pulled in last Sunday’s 6-4 loss against the Flyers as evidenced by his quotes in the Washington Post yesterday, turned in a phenomenal performance in the shootout and played fairly well making 29 saves in the game giving up essentially three power play goals (the Oilers first goal came two seconds after Viktor Kozlov’s slashing penalty expired) and an even strength tally. As I wrote in the comment section of my blog on Tuesday, Olie is a very emotional guy but the Caps still badly need him to be the man in net this year (and at least next year too). I still expect #37 to finish strong, especially given the way this team is scoring goals and Olie’s competitive nature. Kolzig may give up more goals than normal due to a fairly weak and non-physical defense but with Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrom up front plus Mike Green on the point this team is really starting to put the puck in the net.
The Caps are now 20-21-5 overall (14-7-4 under Boudreau) and only trail the Southeast Division leading Atlanta Thrashers by four points but the Caps have two games in hand. The Carolina Hurricanes continue to freefall (injuries, a poor defensive core, and inconsistent goaltending) and the Florida Panthers don’t have the desire or work ethic the Caps have shown to stay in the division race. The Caps host Florida at the Verizon Center on Saturday night. Thus, barring injuries or a major trade, I see the division coming down to the Caps and the Thrashers. On paper I think Atlanta might have a little more talent and clearly have experience on their side from winning the division last year but if Alexander Semin plays the second half of the season the way he has the last two games then this Caps team will be right in it until the end.
Semin, Boyd Gordon, and Tomas Fleischmann have clicked as a line since Michael Nylander went out for the season on Tuesday and I think the key to that has been Gordon because of his ability to play the defensive side of the rink. When Nylander and Semin were together, and granted both were injured the first half of the season, you had two players who just couldn’t handle their own end. Adding Gordon to that line frees Semin up to focus on scoring so this is another smart move by Boudreau. Semin must have defensive support for him to be successful.
The rest of the January schedule is pretty favorable (other than a tough game in Pittsburgh this Monday night where the team has recently and historically struggled) so the Caps should be right near the top of the division at the end of the month. It will then be up to owner Ted Leonsis to let GM George McPhee become a buyer at the trade deadline (Feb 26) to get this team over the top and into the playoffs.
The Caps need a solid defensive defensemen or two to help clear the front of the net, block shots (not just stick your stick out in front of the puck and confuse the goalie like Milan Jurcina did on Sunday for Kolzig and on numerous other times this season), and solidify the team’s penalty killing. They also could use a first line forward so that Viktor Kozlov can be moved to the 3rd line where he belongs. Once again Kozlov was set up several times by Ovechkin and Backstrom tonight yet couldn’t finish the play.
Anaheim defensemen Chris Pronger left the Ducks-Nashville game tonight in the first period after only 3:24 of ice time with a bruised knee. The Ducks are saying he is day-to-day but if he is out for a prolonged period this really hurts Anaheim.
Another big injury occurred tonight in Ottawa as Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson injured his hip in the second period against Carolina and did not return. Ottawa smoked Carolina, 5-1, despite the loss of their captain in the first half of the game.
The hottest team in the NHL right now is the Pittsburgh Penguins who are 10-1-1 in their last 12 games. Goalie Ty Conklin is 10-0-1 during that stretch and has been superb since he was called up from Wilkes Barre of the AHL and given the nod in net. Conklin played five minutes in game one of the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals for Edmonton when G Dwayne Rolosson was injured.
The Northwest Division is razor tight with the top four teams all within two points of each other. Edmonton is also only eight points behind after a horrible start to the season. I still have no idea who will win this division. Vancouver has the best goalie but on paper the Flames appear to have a stronger team but goaltending and defensive breakdowns have hurt the Flames all year. Colorado has serious injuries (Joe Sakic and Ryan Smyth out) but continues to find goals from different players. Minnesota’s success will come down to Marian Gaborik’s health and the play of goalies Niklas Backstrom and Josh Harding.
Don’t forget the hockey doubleheader on NBC on Sunday, January 20th starting at 1230pm in HD (Boston at NY Rangers followed by Anaheim at Dallas)!
WNST PROGRAMMING REMINDER: I will be in studio at WNST on “Such on Sports” with Mark Suchy this Saturday, January 19th, from 1pm to 4pm.