It has been a week and a half since the Caps season ended and over a week since my last blog so I think it is time for some hockey talk. With the second round of the NHL playoffs winding down and the draft and free agency over a month and a half away, here are some thoughts on the Caps, the Hershey Bears, and the rest of the NHL:
Caps New & Thoughts
– The wiped out Alexander Ovechkin goal in game seven was definitely a weak call, in my opinion. So where does it rank with the two other big game seven referee blunders against Washington? Is it on par with the non-called New Jersey offsides in 1988 on the winning tally or the missed goalie interference infraction against the Flyers on their first goal in 2008? Tough debate but Kevin Collins has now been involved in two of three. He was the linesman who didn’t stop the play in 1988 and he was the supervisor of officials for this year’s Montreal series. It is no secret that the Habs spent time complaining to the officials about contact with their goalies during the series. How much impact did that whining have on the call in game seven? I have to think it was a big factor because Mike Knuble barely makes contact with Jaroslav Halak and the puck arguably was already by #41, at that point. Given what I’ve seen in other games throughout these 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs that washed out goal will always be a head scratcher to me.
– After game seven in the post game press conference, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau made a point of saying that his team was healthy in the series against the Canadiens. The 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner was likely just trying to avoid making excuses because we have now found out that Mike Green played with a bad wrist (took a slash in Columbus on April 3rd) and Nicklas Backstrom injured his shoulder in game three. Both #52 and #19 did not play for their countries in the 2010 World Championships that have commenced in Germany because of those injuries. Alexander Ovechkin, Semyon Varlamov, and Alexander Semin are playing for Russia while Brooks Laich is lacing it up for Team Canada.
– There are multiple reasons for the Caps loss ranging from the great play of Halak, lack of Washington secondary scoring, 1 for 33 Capitals power play, etc. but to me the most telling post defeat quotes came from Ovechkin (courtesy of the Washington Post’s DC Sports Bog):
“Maybe we just thought it was a done series,” he said. “Especially after couple playoffs and what we do in the season, I think everybody knows we can win the Cup, we can be on top of everybody. But when you get the lead 3-1, you think Ok, maybe they’re gonna give up and maybe we just gonna win easy game and be ready for next round.”
Clearly game five was the turning point in the series and the inexperienced Caps thought they could just show up that night and win. Part of the maturing process is learning to close teams out. To do that you must never take your opponent lightly and I think Washington could be accused of that in the first five games because they failed to come out strong in the opening stanza in any of those contests. The fact that the Great #8 recognizes the lack of focus from his club is half the battle. It is a painful lesson to learn but come next April hopefully they won’t forget it. Going forward for Washington over the next 12 months, I believe “Mature” is a word that will be brought up quite a bit.
Hershey Bears News & Thoughts
– I am really looking forward to covering game one of the AHL Eastern Conference Finals on Wedneday night in Hershey. I have not seen the Manchester Monarchs play this season but have watched some of their players in past game action. Goalie Jonathan Bernier, who was the first net minder taken in the 2006 NHL draft at pick #11, has already played seven games for the Los Angeles Kings (4-3). His debut was back in September of 2007 when he stoned the Anaheim Ducks in England (4-1 victory). Bernier would lose his next three starts and was sent back to junior hockey before ending the 2007-08 season in Manchester. He has since been beaten out by Jonathan Quick at the NHL level, but the young goalie did play three games for Coach Terry Murray in 2009-10 going 3-0 with a .957 save percentage. Bernier will be a tough nut to crack for Hershey, much like Cory Schneider was for Manitoba in last year’s AHL Calder Cup finals. Bernier was taken 12 picks ahead of the Caps Semyon Varlamov, who was the third goalie selected in 2006. Bernier will most likely oppose the 34th pick (5th goalie) from that same 2006 draft in Hershey’s Michal Neuvirth.
– Speaking of Kings vs. Caps draft picks there is another interesting link heading into this series. In the 2007 NHL Entry Draft LA had the fourth pick overall and took defenseman Thomas Hickey of the Seattle Thunderbirds. Hickey was the first d-man chosen and on the next pick, Washington took Karl Alzner, who an NHL scout told me shortly after selection day was “hands down the best blue liner in the entire draft.” King Karl has proven that to be true having shuttled between Hershey and DC for the last two seasons and Alzner had a very solid game seven against the Habs, after which both Boudreau and GM George McPhee proclaimed him “NHL ready for 2010-11.” Had the Kings selected Alzner they would have a monster blue line pair of Drew Doughty and the Caps #27. Thankfully for Capitals fans Alzner’s partner in Hershey is John Carlson, the 2010 Team USA World Junior Championships hero, and the two will likely be paired for several years to come in DC. Btw, Hickey has been scratched from all 10 Manchester playoff games through the first two rounds.
– Another Monarch I have seen play several times, and once in person, is center Justin Azevedo. Azevedo was the captain of the 2007-08 Kitchener Rangers, who lost in the finals of the Memorial Cup to the Spokane Chiefs. He is second in scoring for the Monarchs in the AHL playoffs with two goals and eight assists. In 2007 I was in Kitchener with an NHL scout and was impressed with the skill, speed, and desire that he displayed in a contest against the Sault Ste. Marie Greyhounds. However, because he is only 5-7 and 180 pounds he wasn’t drafted by Los Angeles until the sixth round in 2008.
– Oscar Moller is another familiar name. The 21 year old Swedish center was selected in the 2nd round of the 2007 NHL draft and he has two goals and four assists in 10 playoff contests this spring for Manchester. Moller was the team captain of the 2009 World Junior Championships runner-up Team Sweden squad and has 11 goals and 11 assists in 74 games for Los Angeles over the last two seasons. Moller is another smallish center (5-11, 182 pounds) who has speed and skill.
NHL News & Thoughts
– Speaking of young teams needing to mature, did the Chicago Blackhawks take the Vancouver Canucks too lightly themselves in game five on Sunday night? The Canucks, who after smoking the Hawks 5-1 in game one, had lost three straight in this series and headed to the Windy City facing elimination. Much like the Canadiens did to the Caps, the boys from Vancouver tallied twice in the first period and rode the solid goaltending of Roberto Luongo, who had struggled in the past three tilts, en route to a 4-1 victory. Game six is on Tuesday at 930pm from Vancouver and clearly Joel Quenneville’s squad missed a golden opportunity to put the Canucks away for good.
– The San Jose Sharks have advanced to the Western Conference Finals for the first time since 2004 (lost to Calgary Flames) with their 4-1 impressive series victory over the Detroit Red Wings. The Sharks, who have been a post season disappointment for the past four seasons, won the Presidents’ Trophy in 2008-09, but lost in the first round that year to the Anaheim Ducks. Their 2008-09 season has led to comparisons to the Caps 2009-10 campaign and there are some similarities. To me the biggest one is the secondary scoring issue. Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been criticized heavily for their past post season performances and to help change that Sharks GM Doug Wilson acquired forward Dany Heatley from Ottawa last summer in a monster trade. The acquisition helped raise the play of #19 and #12 but that top line, which was used by Team Canada in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, has received a major boost from their second forward unit. Joe Pavelski (9 goals), Devon Setoguchi (5 goals), and Ryan Clowe (2 goals) have been terrific in the post season and that type of secondary scoring is something the Caps will need to find in the playoffs in 2010-11. I am sticking with my pre-season pick of San Jose taking the Stanley Cup this spring but if Thornton and company think this win over Detroit gives them redemption for past miscues, then they will get knocked out next round. You can never relax in the playoffs.
– Game six of the Penguins-Canadiens series is on Monday night and Halak has been fabulous again to keep Montreal alive. What is even more amazing is that the Habs have won two contests without their best defenseman, Andrei Markov, who was injured in game one. Now word has it that Hal Gill may miss game six due to a cut to the back of his leg, but Corey Masisak (NHL.COM & CSN.COM) reported via his twitter account (@cmasisak22) Sunday night that Gill was on his flight into Quebec. The Habs absolutely have to have #75 in their lineup if they are to have any chance in game six. Montreal’s partial success against the defending Stanley Cup Champions does show that their upset over Washington was not a total fluke, despite the insistence of some analysts that choose to put ALL of the blame on the Caps, but that is little solace to the Capitals and their fans.