Massive NHL Blog: Caps Advance, Ovechkin for Hart, and Western Conference Semi-Finals Predictions

April 29, 2009 | Ed Frankovic

Additional Caps Advance to Second Round Coverage

As promised last night, there is more to tell after Tuesday’s huge Caps win over the New York Rangers in game seven, a series in which the Caps trailed two games to none and then three games to one, yet still prevailed.

How big was this series win for this franchise?

“It’s huge. We worked so hard this year to get where we are now and to be put back in the same position we were last year [losing in the first round] is not a good building block for us. To get this win and move on to the second round now we are more experienced in that aspect and hopefully we can go as long as we can here but we are definitely more experienced than we were last year,” said Caps defensemen Mike Green (1 goal, 4 assists in round one).

“It’s awesome, it’s a great feeling, we are excited about the next round. You never want to lose, especially in a long series like this coming back and fighting. You never want to feel what we felt last year.,” said Tom Poti, who was one of the stars of this playoff series with two goals, four assists, and was +2.

The key point from the above quotes is the Caps, after a 108 point season, improved on last year’s first round exit. Had they lost this series, GM George McPhee, who was quoted afterwards as saying “we had to win,” would have to give some consideration to the thought that maybe this mostly very young team was better assembled for the regular season given it’s high skill level but lack of playoff results. This is a common thing for a GM to do after multiple frustrating post season losses and you need to look no further than the President’s Trophy winning San Jose Sharks for an example of that happening now.

“The frustration is overwhelming. We owe an apology to our fans and our ownership. … Everything will be evaluated. There’s nothing that’s off the table. This is going to be a tough, painful summer, and it should be,” said Sharks GM Doug Wilson after his team, that led the NHL with 117 regular season points, lost in six games in the first round to the eighth seeded Anaheim Ducks. Wilson, who added Cup winning defensemen Dan Boyle and Rob Blake last off-season plus fired Coach Ron Wilson for not getting past the second round on several tries (he hired former Wings assistant Brian McLellan to take over behind the bench), may have to make some major moves that could include trading superstar Joe Thornton, who has been heavily labeled as a guy who can’t win in the playoffs.

With Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom both just one year away from unrestricted free agency who is to say that a loss this year to the Rangers might have pushed McPhee into a Wilson-like mode? Fortunately for Washington, that scenario appears to be out the window heading into the Pittsburgh series given the Caps ability to have some postseason success.

Coaching played a big role in the Caps series win and the two biggest moves that made a difference, in my opinion, go to Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau. First, he yanked Jose Theodore and inserted rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov after just one game. The young goalie only gave up 8 goals in six games and two of those were in garbage time in game six. The players certainly enjoyed having solid goaltending they could count on.

“He’s a great young goaltender and he’s been the difference in this series. Stepping in and playing the way he has has changed the atmosphere on our team. We are very confident with him in the net. For him to come in and play consistently the way he has every game is great. Not many goalies can play as consistent as that every game. It is incredible at his age,” said Green giving #40 a ringing endorsement as the Caps starting goalie.

Then with the 2nd overall ranked power play in the NHL struggling in games four and five (it went 0 for 13) the crafty coach moved Oveckhin down low (a move he did successfully against the Flyers last season) and inserted Tom Poti on the point opposite Mike Green. After that move the Caps were 2 for 4 on their power plays but it could have easily been 4 for 4 if not for Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist as Washington had the puck in New York’s end nearly the entire time on both attempts in game seven after going 2 for 2 in game six. I asked both Poti and Green if moving Ovechkin down low changed things and opened things up for them.

“Maybe. It is always fun to play on the power play. Haven’t been on it much the last two years but it is nice to get out there and kind of shake things up a little bit, it helped us win the series, I think. We had some nice chances to score but Lundqvist came up big and kept it tied,” said Poti.

“Yeah, Tom is a left handed pass and he can move it to me a little bit better and I can go back and forth with him and we can create and allow the guys to move around down low alot and tire [the penalty killers] out. Alex [Ovechkin] and Alex [Semin] down low, Alex [Ovechkin] in the slot. He’s a big guy and you see that last game in New York he gets a tip on the puck, he’s got great hand-eye coordination so that was a great adjustment that Bruce did there,” finished Green.

Final thought on the series, it will be nice get away from the over dramatic New York Rangers and my least favorite player in the NHL, Sean Avery. Avery has the potential to be  a very good player but he gets too emotional and crosses the line too much. When #16 plays like he did in game seven he is great for his team but Washington did a good job of not letting his antics get to them.

“Just look the other way. I think that frustrates him the most. Just skate away and don’t play into his own games,” was how Poti described Washington’s plan on playing the pesky and controversial forward.

By the way, Avery did cause some trouble in game seven but it was to broadcaster Ray Ferraro, who was at ice level between the two benches for live reports. Avery, after a first period shift in which he was trying to goad the Washington players into taking a penalty, stormed back to his bench but let his stick fly in the air, seemingly out of control, and it struck Ferraro and the former Whaler and Islander had to grab it and yank it off of him. Ferraro then yelled something to Avery and the loose cannon forward leaned up and said something back to the guy who killed the Caps in overtime back in the 1993 playoffs. I asked Ferraro afterwards where the stick hit him but he declined comment not wanting to be part of the Caps-Rangers story.

Next up are the Penguins and there will be extensive media coverage locally and in the US and Canada. These teams respect but clearly don’t like each other. Boudreau’s “Welcome to the Circus” quote from Tuesday night, when he learned the Penguins would be Washington’s round two opponent, appears to be foreshadowing for the next two weeks.

If you’d like to hear my WNST on-air segment from today with Comcast Morning Show host Drew Forrester, please go to the WNST audio vault (http://wnst.net/wordpress/section/audio/).

Ovechkin Named Hart Trophy Finalist

No surprise here, Ovechkin, who won the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP last season when he scored 65 goals, is once again nominated for that trophy. The Great #8 is a finalist with two other Russians, Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit.

Members of the Professional Hockey Writers’ Association submitted ballots for the Hart Trophy at the conclusion of the regular season, with the top three vote-getters announced as finalists. The winner will be announced Thursday, June 18, during the 2009 NHL Awards that will be broadcast live from the Pearl Concert Theater inside the Palms Hotel Las Vegas on VERSUS in the United States and on CBC in Canada. The Capitals are assured of at least two candidates for honors at the show, as Green is a finalist for the Norris Trophy as the league’s top defenseman.

Ovechkin could become the first player to win back-to-back Hart Trophies since Dominik Hasek in 1996-97 and ’97-98. The last non-goaltender to win consecutive Hart Trophies was Wayne Gretzky, who won eight in a row from 1980-87.

“It means a lot to me to be up for this award,” Ovechkin said. “I always want to be the best, so this is a great honor. It’s special, too, with three Russians nominated. It is a great thing for our country and our sport.”

Ovechkin led the NHL in goals (56), earning the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy for the second consecutive season. He also led the league in points per game (1.39), shots (528) and power-play points (46). His 110 points in 79 games ranked second in the league, and his goal total was 10 more than any other player. He finished the season recording eight more points than any other player after the NHL All-Star Game (51; Malkin and Sidney Crosby of Pittsburgh were second with 43 each).

Western Conference Semi-Finals Matchups, Analysis, and Predictions

The NHL is in a great position now as there are 8 teams left in the playoffs and in my mind, any of them can win the Stanley Cup this June. In the East you have Boston vs. Carolina and “The Circus” while out west you have the last two Stanley Cup Champions playing each other in Detroit (2008) vs. Anaheim (2007) and up and coming Chicago vs. Vancouver (who have the best goalie in the league in Roberto Luongo according to Yahoo’s puck daddy, Greg Wyshynski).

Tonight, I’ll preview the West:

(2) Detroit vs. (8) Anaheim

Even though I picked the Sharks to beat the Ducks, I wrote back in my first round preview that I thought the Sharks had the worst draw of the top four seeds. Anaheim has a great defense with Scott Niedermayer, Chris Pronger, Ryan Whitney, Jim Wisniewski, and Francois Beauchemin (returned from injury in round one). Rookie Bobby Ryan, the number two overall pick to Crosby in the 2005 NHL Entry draft, is tearing it up on a line with Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. In net, Jonas Hiller has been superb and the Ducks also have seasoned Cup winning vets in Teemu Selanne and Rob Niedermayer. You want goaltending depth, Stanley Cup winning goalie J.S Giguere is currently operating the bench door and will continue to do so unless Hiller struggles. Talk about a good insurance policy in net.

On the other hand, the Detroit Red Wings are a big red machine (sorry 1975/76 Cincinnati Reds!). On the back line they have six time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom with Brian Rafalksi, Brad Stuart, and Nicklas Kronwall and up front they have Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, Marian Hossa, Johan Franzen, and the best goalie screener in the business in Tomas Holmstrom. The only possible shaky area is goalie with an aging Chris Osgood, but “Ozzie” has won two Stanley Cups as starting goaltender, including last season.

The Red Wings are great at controlling the puck while the Ducks like to be physical and play the cycle game. This will be one outstanding series but I’ve been on the Wings bandwagon all year so I am not jumping off now. Detroit in seven games.

(3) Vancouver Canucks vs. (4) Chicago Blackhawks

Luongo, the Canucks captain, is the whole key to this team. He is so big and takes up so much net that you have to get him out of position or screen him like crazy to score on him. Because of the outstanding goaltending in Vancouver, the Canucks can take a few more chances offensively with the Sedins (Daniel and Henrik), Pavel Demitra, Ryan Kessler, Alex Burrows, and Mats Sundin (added as a free agent midway through the season). Vancouver’s defense is anchored by the powerful and fiery Willie Mitchell but it also boasts solid two way man Mattias Ohlund plus Sami Salo, Alexander Edler, and Kevin Bieksa. The Canucks had alot of injuries during the season (Luongo missed six weeks plus with a groin injury and the defense had numerous man games lost) but came together and blew by a really banged up Calgary team down the stretch erasing what was a 13 point Flames lead in the Northwest Division in January.

Chicago is a highly skilled team like the Caps. Their captain, Jonathan Toews (pronounced Taze [like faze and daze]), is such a good two way player that goes to the net and gets ugly goals to go with some highlight reel ones as well (who can forget the Carrie Milbank/Eddie Olczyk NHL.com commercial?). Patrick Kane, who missed a game against Calgary due to the flu, is all speed and skill and you add in Patrick Sharp, rookie Kris Versteeg, Martin Havlat, plus big #33 Dennis Byfuglien who is effective when he goes hard to the net and that adds up to some serious offensive firepower. On the backline the Hawks have puck mover Brian Campbell who played well against the Flames plus Brent Seabrook (really stepped up against Calgary), Cam Barker, and Duncan Keith. It is not a real physical defense but it has been effective. In goal soon to be free agent Nikolai Khabibulin has been so good that Hawks Coach Joel Quennville has kept former Canadiens and Caps goalie Cristobal Huet on the bench (an expensive backup at over $5M a season for four years).

To me the key for the Canucks is to dump the puck in and hit the Chicago defense. Vancouver has a good cycle game and will need to generate scoring opportunities from that. Chicago has offense but they will now face Luongo and it will be tough to score. They had trouble against St. Louis scoring but Chris Mason gave up some bad goals for the Blues to allow the Canucks to sweep. This is a hard one to pick but I’m going with a well rested Vancouver team in seven games.

Well, that is it for tonight. If you’ve read this far you are a true hockey fan and I thank you. On Thursday night look for some coverage of the Caps-Pens series as I head out to Kettler Ice Plex to catch up with the Capitals after their practice.

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