Congratulations to Alexander Ovechkin for being named the number one star for the week ending December 28th by the NHL. Ovechkin tallied six points (five goals, one assist) as the Capitals (23-11-3) went 3-0-0 and extended their Southeast Division lead to 10 points. He tallied three points (two goals, one assist) as Washington overcame a 4-0 deficit to defeat the New York Rangers, 5-4, in overtime at Madison Square Garden December 23rd, scored the game-winning highlight reel goal in a 3-2 victory over the Buffalo Sabres on December 26th and recorded a pair of goals, including the game-winner, as the Capitals improved to 15-1-1 at home by defeating the Toronto Maple Leafs, 4-1, Sunday night. Ovechkin has posted 44 points (23 goals, 21 assists) in his past 28 games, including a league-leading 12 goals in 13 December contests. He ranks second in the league in scoring with 49 points (25 goals, 24 assists) in 35 games.
Because of the Great #8 the Caps are “Can’t Miss Hockey” and Larry Brooks of the New York Post wrote a great piece on Ovechkin in Sunday’s edition (http://www.nypost.com/seven/12282008/sports/moresports/nhl_eclipsing_brightest_star_146182.htm). To summarize the article, Brooks is saying that the league is making a big mistake by promoting Penguins star Sydney Crosby too much over the Great #8. Brooks noted that Ovechkin, who takes more shots than any other NHL player, could make a run at one of the most difficult to break regular season records of all time that is held by Phil Esposito – most shots on goal. Esposito had 550 of them in 1970-71 during his 76 goal year and Ovechkin, who had 446 shots on goal last year, has 223 this year but lately he has been averaging over seven shots a game which with 45 games left would add over 305 to his current total and put him within striking distance of Espo’s record.
On the bookkeeping front Monday, the Caps recalled forward Chris Bourque from Hershey and sent goalie Simeon Varlamov back down to the Bears meaning that Brent Johnson is healthy enough to back up red hot goalie Jose Theodore (three wins in a row) Tuesday night in Buffalo. Also, forward Donald Brashear’s leg is bothering him again meaning that Bourque could get another shot in the line-up on Tuesday after some brief stints with Washington earlier in the year. If Bourque ever wants to make it in the NHL he needs to score some goals while at the top level. Forwards Tomas Fleischmann, Alexander Semin, and Sergei Fedorov are all still out for the Buffalo game. On the blueline, Mike Green and Jeff Schultz returned against Toronto but Tom Poti and John Erskine are still not really close to returning. In addition, defensemen Karl Alzner injured his hand in Sunday’s game against the Leafs and after I spoke with the rookie defensemen following the game and extended my hand to thank him for the interview he uncharacteristically pulled back to prevent risking further pain and injury. Therefore, another defensemen, likely Tyler Sloan because he shoots left, will be recalled from Hershey just in case the 2007 5th overall pick in the NHL Entry Draft can’t go on Tuesday (the other option from Hershey is right handed shooting Bryan Helmer). Alzner didn’t practice today but hopefully he’ll be able to gut it out and play, although those hand injuries can prevent you from holding the stick real well making one much less effective. Below is the aforementioned Alzner interview:
WNST: So Karl, another big win at home and the team is now 15-1-1 at home, what is it about this place that makes the team so successful?
Alzner: I think guys just like being here playing and it always helps when you have your fans, who are always loud. It’s turning into an intimidating place, I think teams are starting to come in and second guess themselves just a little bit before the puck drops and that is always a big factor to help your team to win.
WNST: It was 1-0 Leafs for a long time in the game. What did you think of Jose Theodore’s play during that stretch?
Alzner: If it wasn’t for him it could have gotten ugly right away. We are fortunate that we put a lot of pucks towards their goalie (Vesa Toskala) but he made some really good saves, especially early. It shows a lot that this team never quit, just like the last few games, we just keep going and going and tonight was no different. I’m happy to see a team be like that because that means good things in the future.
WNST: What was the mood like on the bench when it was 1-0?
Alzner: You know what, noone was getting upset and noone was frustrated or anything. We knew that games with this team (the Leafs) go like that and they’ve always been close and if we didn’t score a lot a the beginning we just had to keep going in the second and the third. We’ve got guys that can score and it is just a matter of time before they do.
WNST: So how good do you feel so far at the NHL level?
Alzner: 16 games and I feel great. Tonight I felt really comfortable out there. I was seeing things well, I was moving good today and passes were on and it just seemed like guys were open for me so I was fortunate that I executed because I was practicing the last couple of days with someone else’s stick and I won’t say who [laughing], but I didn’t like the curve very much so I was happy to get mine back.
WNST: There was a play late in the game where instead of rimming the puck up the boards where only a Leafs player was [which would have led to a turnover] you stopped and threw the puck up high off the glass. Tell me about that play.
Alzner: That’s my bread and butter since juniors, go off the glass and out, and especially towards the end of the game I’m not going to try and make any plays that is not my style of game. Off the glass and out was the first thing on my mind and the only thing on my mind.
WNST: You’ve gone 16 games and you still don’t have a penalty minute. I know you were upset about the penalty you took in Hershey because you said it was a delay of game call over the glass type of penalty.
Alzner: I stay out of the box. I don’t like to put my team behind. That is where I play best – on the penalty kill – and I want to be out on the ice when we’ve got guys in the box. So I do my best to stay out and it’s tough because guys are always flying around me but I’m working on it and I take a lot of pride in not taking penalties.
WNST: What is it like at the NHL level in front of the net because the rules allow forwards to go there now without as much punishment as in the past?
Alzner: Most of the focus now is just on blocking the shots instead of taking a guy out in front of the net. You can give them little shots here and there just to throw them off a little bit but all we want to do is block the shots. If you look at our D over the last few games we’ve got a lot of blocked shots and it is always nice to make it easier on our goalie and make some of the saves for him.
WNST: Speaking of goalies, Theodore seemed to do a good job of not giving up rebounds tonight.
Alzner: He was on tonight, really good, made all of the little saves. Scrambles in front of the net are the hardest for goalies because you can’t tell where the puck is and you have those big pads on so it is hard to move around but he did great today and that is what you can expect from him. He is a very good goaltender and he proved it today.
As I’ve said many times in this blog before, Alzner is going to be a great player, and at 20 years old he is mature beyond his years. Hopefully he can play on Tuesday because he has consistently been the defensive leader in ice time or near it since he’s been up from Hershey (Green and Poti, the other ice team eaters, have been hurt a lot while #27 has been up with the Caps). Alzner is a “team guy” on a team full of “team guys” and anyone who is around this hockey team on even an occasional basis can see that. When you have a group of players like that good things typically happen, as evidenced by the team’s stellar record despite having to go 34 players deep on the roster so far this season (and 35 deep if you count Brett Leonhardt LOL!).
Towards the team guy theme, I mentioned the Ovechkin empty net goal in my blog last night and how Brooks Laich, who was on the ice and was headed to the net on the play, felt about the Great #8 not being able to get him the puck for his first hat trick. Here is what Brooks had to say when I asked him about it.
“When Nicky [Backstrom] got the puck and we came out of the zone I got on the horse and tried to get up ice as fast as I could because I had never had a hat trick in a game but Nicky made the right play, I wasn’t open, and he made the pass to Alex, and Alex walked in and shot it,” began Laich about the empty net tally by the Great #8. At this point Ovechkin walked by and was listening in on his way to the shower room and Laich shifted gears sarcastically saying, “I was wide open, he could have passed it, it was just a selfish play.” This brought laughter from me and the few others around including Ovechkin, who then ducked into the shower room. Then Laich got serious again, “The pass wasn’t there, Ovie made a great play, and the main thing is to put the game away. I’ve played with Alex for four years now and I know if there was any way he could get me the puck he would have because he is the most unselfish guy I’ve played with. Watch his reactions when other teammates score, he is just as happy as when he scores. So at that point in time, the game was just more important,” finished Laich on Ovechkin’s empty net goal against Toronto.
Finally, here is some more info on the team concept and unity that exists on this hockey club. After each Caps win a red hard hat is given to a player on the team from the player who won it after the previous win. Laich talks about winning it after the Toronto game and the rules that were supposed to be followed for giving it out.
“Ovie gave it to me, it is supposed to go to someone who does their job and helps the team win and not supposed to go to the goal scorer. That was the rule that Chris Clark came up with at the start of the year, he said, ‘don’t give it to the guy who scores the goals give it to somebody who does a hard hat job’ but [laughing] I guess our team didn’t really listen to that too much,” started Laich, “ it is just something fun and it is nice to get it, nice to be recognized, and come next game when we win the next hockey game I’ll be happy to hand it out.”