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An improving bullpen is a good sign for O’s

Posted on 17 May 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

As an Orioles fan who hasn’t seen the franchise play a meaningful game in 12 years, living with the adage “one day at a time” has become a house rule. And for today, the bullpen and a quality start last night by Rich Hill gives a few causes for hope.

Hill threw 88 pitches, left the game in the sixth inning with a one-run lead and Danys Baez, Jim Johnson and George Sherrill took care of business, allowing just one Kansas City runner on base over the remainder of the game.

Of course, the Royals of 2009 won’t be confused with the 1929 Yankees, either. But a 3-2 win in Kansas City is acceptable and the Birds will send Koji Uehara to the hill today against Luke Hochevar.

Be prepared for fireworks: Hochevar (6-14, 5.64 lifetime ERA) gave up eight hits and seven runs in two innings during his 2009 debut last Tuesday against Oakland. And that’s only after Sidney Ponson stunk so bad they promoted this stiff from Omaha.

The Orioles go for another series win today. Only the delayed freight train of Zach Greinke could slow them down on Friday night.

The new ballpark design in Kansas City is also worth seeing if you haven’t tuned in all weekend. A fun day of baseball ahead.

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Caps: Playing George McPhee / NHL Conference Finals Analysis and Predictions

Posted on 17 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Analysis: Playing George McPhee

Tonight, after hearing the words of Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and General Manager George McPhee on Friday at breakdown day combined with the knowledge I’ve gained from watching this hockey team plus input I’ve gotten from other scouting and knowledgeable sources, I am going to play George McPhee as he heads into the off-season and try and predict some of what he might do and what I would do with this hockey club if I were in his position.

Before we begin, I agree with McPhee and Boudreau that this is a very good team right now and there are a lot of talented hockey players in the organization, many of them aged 25 and under. Clearly the future is bright. However, what the Caps need to do is finally win a Stanley Cup and not end up being a team that makes the playoffs 14 straight years without an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, like they did from 1982-83 to 1995-96 under GM David Poile. Washington is close to achieving their goal but if I am McPhee I need to really adhere to my evaluation process and look hard at the personnel from a players and coaching standpoint to decide if I have what it takes to win it all.

Let’s start with the head coach. Clearly Boudreau is a guy this team likes playing for and his uptempo system seems to fit the talent. Based on what Bruce said on Friday, he has some guys on this team that don’t do what he wants them to do, which is go to the net. This is a problem because I can’t remember a Stanley Cup Champion team made up of perimeter hockey players. Given that combination some personnel moves are in order, and we’ll get to them soon enough. However, during the Penguins series a comment was made to me by an NHL scout who said that the Caps do not play well away from the puck (for the record, the scout criticized the Penguins ability to do this as well). This falls on coaching and personnel. What I don’t know, and if I am McPhee I am finding out, is the team’s lack of ability to play well away from the puck a function of the players not buying in or does the coaching need to improve? In this regard, a head coach and his assistants are responsible for the system. Boudreau is a lock to come back but I am not so sure he and McPhee are sold on the team of assistant coaches (Jay Leach, Dean Evason, and Dave Prior).

Prior is the goaltending coach and Olie Kolzig practically swore by him. Prior seems to be doing things right given that rookies Simeon Varlamov and Michael Neuvirth have emerged ahead of schedule but my question to him is what the heck happened with Jose Theodore? Theodore was wildly inconsistent and a major argument could be made that he was the biggest reason Washington is out after two rounds of the playoffs. If he has any kind of a game one against the Rangers then the Caps win that contest, at worst, 3-2, and they probably knock off New York in five games. If they beat the Rangers in five games then some of the injuries we heard about on Friday probably don’t happen and it is more likely that a healthier Caps team would have beaten the Penguins. After all, the beat up squad that expended a ton of energy to come back from a 3-1 deficit in the opening round took the defending Eastern Conference Champions to seven games.

Granted the team in front of Theodore wasn’t totally ready for playoff hockey at the outset of the post season but the Caps played decent enough to win the playoff opener, if not for Theodore. Yes, good came out of that in terms of seeing the future in Varlamov but #60 was paid $4.5M this past season and next to try and help the team win a Stanley Cup. He has failed miserably and if I am Boudreau and McPhee I just don’t know how he could regain the #1 job because even if he plays well in training camp and the regular season next year, like he did from late December to the end of March, who is to say he doesn’t put up another clunker in game one of next year’s playoffs? Was Theodore’s problem technical or was it a mental thing? Prior would probably know best but I’m starting to think it might be mental and if I am the Capitals players, I just don’t have any faith in that guy anymore. Therefore, I think McPhee needs to move him before next season’s trade deadline. The problem, though, is that could be tough given his salary and you are really risking things going with two young goaltenders. All you have to do to find a situation where that didn’t work out was in Montreal this year with Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. Of course the Canadiens don’t have Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green so that might not be an accurate comparison. If I am McPhee, a Varlamov/Neuvrith combo isn’t such a bad thing next year. Brent Johnson, who Boudreau called “A great team guy,” could be added cheap for insurance too but his durability could be an issue.

Questions were asked about the defense on Friday, specifically if McPhee was going to acquire a free agent to help keep the front of the net more clear. McPhee responded by saying he has alot of good defensemen but reading between the lines and based on what many of us have seen this year, they have a bunch of good defensemen but many of them are very much alike. Tom Poti, Karl Alzner, and Jeff Schultz all have similar styles in that they are good skaters and move the puck well but aren’t physical. Schultz is clearly the weakest of that trio. Green is the #1 defenseman and I see Shaone Morrisonn as being the odd man out because he isn’t a good buy given the money he wants (reportedly in the $3M range). One of my scouting sources does not see him as a good defensemen, and that is wording it nicely. So I think #26 won’t be back. As for Milan Jurcina, this guy really improved this season and deserves to return. He is turning in to a good #5 or #6 defensemen. John Erskine also had a good season but he is injury prone and some of that comes from his physical style and some of it comes from his subpar skating ability. The team has already committed to #4 for two more years so he is definitely back, plus he is physical and the Caps are weak in that area. Brian Pothier has another season under contract at $2.5M, which is too much, if you ask me. Assuming Mo is out, Washington needs another physical blueliner and therefore McPhee can either trade or go the free agent route. Schultz is clearly trade bait along with Pothier and I’d even put Jurcina in a deal with other players if I could get a top 4 defenseman to go with Green, Poti, and Alzner.

At forward, Michael Nylander is not back and he will either be waived or retire (McPhee said a buyout does not make financial sense), so that frees up money right there. The concern is the top 6 forwards of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov, and Tomas Fleischmann are not exactly grind it out and go to the net type of players. I think Fleischmann, if he can build up his strength in the off-season, will score more next season (that pneumonia he had really sapped his energy). I don’t think I bring back Kozlov because he isn’t a big go to the net guy. Washington needs a #2 center, especially if Fedorov is not back (and even so he only played 52 regular season games this past year). There is talk of Brooks Laich jumping up to that role and that wouldn’t be bad but McPhee still needs another forward who can go to the net in his top 6. Do you trade Semin, who has so much talent but prefers the perimeter and appears to be easily knocked off his game due to injury?

Dave Steckel clearly is back and has upside as does Matt Bradley and Boyd Gordon. Eric Fehr needs to make the jump to becoming a 20 goal scorer but he can’t stay healthy. Apparently he draws the ire of the coaches too. #16 has the size and skating ability to be a go to the net player but I don’t think he will become a Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, or Bobby Ryan type of player that he was projected to be at one time. So McPhee needs to add another top 6 forward who is more physical and can get the grind out type of goals that a Bill Guerin is giving the Penguins since he moved over there at the trade deadline. Chris Clark is under contract for two more years but I have serious doubts about his ability to produce. His scoring touch seems gone (he did have wrist surgery) and he has lost a step. It is tough paying him $2.6M a season if he isn’t scoring at least 20 goals. I am not sold on Chris Bourque making it as a top 6 forward on this team but he might fit in elsewhere so perhaps he is part of a package deal for a defenseman or forward?

That leaves us with Donald Brashear, whose return Ovechkin lobbied for on Friday. I think #87 intimidated the opposition but he also was prone to bad penalties and his skating ability detoriated after his knee injury. I think McPhee needs a tough guy on the roster to prevent teams from taking liberties with Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Green but I’m not sure it is #87 anymore. Perhaps the top 4 defenseman that is added can be the physical intimidator that this team still needs? Or another cheaper tough guy could be added?

Whatever the case, I think McPhee is more active this summer than last but the salary cap will likely limit his options. One of the biggest questions he has to answer is on Semin, who is immensely talented but seems to lack the drive necessary to take the Caps to the next level.

NHL Conference Finals Anaylsis and Predictions

After going 7 of 8 in the first round (only lost with San Jose), I was only 2 for 4 in round two (won with Pittsburgh and Detroit). With four teams left we are pretty much guaranteed the rematch of a somewhat recent Stanley Cup Finals unless Chicago knocks off Detroit and Carolina beats Pittsburgh. Last year we had the Red Wings defeat the Penguins, in 2002 Detroit was victorious over Carolina, and in 1992 the Penguins knocked off the Blackhawks.

Western Conference: Detroit (2) vs. Chicago (4)

Detroit is the defending Stanley Cup Champions and they added forward Marian Hossa to the mix from last year. Chicago is an up and coming young team that clearly aided from the hiring of coach Joel Quennville and more importantly, Scotty Bowman at the executive level. Chicago is fast with forwards Patrick Kane, Martin Havlat, Kris Versteeg, Patrick Sharp, and Jonathan Toews. They have good goaltending in Nikolai Khabibulin and Cristobal Huet is the expensive backup. On defense, Brent Seabrook has really elevated his game and is logging over 26 minutes a night. Duncan Keith has been strong as well.

The Red Wings, though, are an incredible bunch and with Tomas Holmstrom and Johan “Mule” Franzen up front along with guys like Jiri Hudler and Daniel Cleary they score the ugly goal. The big question has been, where is Pavel Datsyuk? He only has 1 goal and 4 assists in 11 playoff games. I imagine he is nursing some injury. The other question on Detroit is can Chris Osgood hold up in goal? The two time Stanley Cup Champion always appears to be a lightning rod for criticism.

Prediction: The Red Wings are the men and the Hawks are the boys, Detroit in 5 games.

Eastern Conference: Pittsburgh (4) vs. Carolina (6)

This series sees two brothers, Eric and Jordan Staal, facing off against each other. The Hurricanes are the fastest team in the Eastern Conference and they used that speed and the superb goaltending of Cam Ward to knock off the Devils and Bruins in dramatic seven game fashion. Both of those teams did not match up well, from a skating standpoint, with the Hurricanes. However, the Penguins have speed plus experience. Sidney Crosby is the leading candidate for the Conn Smythe trophy right now and if Evgeni Malkin plays like he did in games three and five of the Washington series the Pens will be tough to beat. Their weakness is in goal with Marc-Andre Fleury plus the Sergei Gonchar knee injury has to be a concern. Staal and Erik Cole have been flying on a line together for the Canes and Ray Whitney has had a good playoffs as well. Carolina’s defense is a cast of no names that collectively play well together with Joni Pitkanen being the offensive qb.

Prediction: The Canes are fast but Pittsburgh has too much talent and can keep up with Carolina in the skating department. Penguins in 6 games.

If these predictions hold up, we will have a rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals.

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NHL Referees Under Scrutiny/ News from Caps Breakdown Day / NHL Playoffs / Memorial Cup Thoughts

Posted on 16 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

NHL Referees Under Scrutiny

We have seen three playoff game sevens take place in the National Hockey League this week and some of the big time hockey commentators are taking issue with penalty calls in both the Caps-Penguins game on Wednesday and then the Ducks-Red Wings game on Thursday. Don Cherry, Mike Milbury, and Ron MacLean, all of Hockey Night in Canada, have each separately blasted the slashing call on Shaone Morrisonn that led to the opening power play goal by Sidney Crosby in game 7 on Wednesday night. In fact, on Thursday afternoon (the day after the game) during the Hockey Night in Canada Radio broadcast on Sirius 122, MacLean was still adamant that what #26 did was not a penalty. MacLean, who was on air with host Jeff Marek and guest Paul Stewart (former NHL referee), went into great detail on why it should not have been called a penalty. Cherry and Milbury both said between periods of the game on Wednesday that the call had too much influence on the outcome of the game.

Then on Thursday night both Versus commentators, Keith Jones and Brian Engblom, took issue with the slashing call  made on the Ducks Ryan Getzlaf on Tomas Holmstrom that led to the first goal of that contest for the eventually victorious Red Wings.

Clearly slashing penalties, which seem to have gone up in correlation with the number of broken sticks (and that has increased due to these new flimsy and supposedly technologically advanced products), are one thing that needs to be looked at before next season. I asked both Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee about this today at Caps breakdown day.

“This is a really tough game to officiate, I think we have to say that, there is so much going on out there, it is so fast, it is not easy to officiate. What you want them to do is officiate and not try and manage the game and let each game take on its own identity and officiate it. I, like other managers and commentators, worry about some of the penalties that are called. And the first penalty the other night [on Morrisonn], for example, eight minutes left in the first period, there is no score, you got a player on their team that is trying to dump it in at our blue line. Our defenseman comes over and takes a hack at him, the puck goes in our end, that player is going off on a line change, his stick was broken, he drops it, and the referee calls it a penalty. It wasn’t a scoring chance, nobody was hurt, there wasn’t physical contact, but because there was a broken stick the referee called a penalty. Now that I don’t get in an NHL playoff game and it was game seven. So those kinds of things require more judgement and in fact, [the referee] didn’t even have his hand up until the player turned around and started skating to the bench without the stick. They get the first goal and score eight seconds later and it is over. So those things are going to have to be better, no question,” said McPhee, who clearly felt the referees had too much influence on the outcome of game seven on Wednesday.

“I was thinking this thought this morning. There are three or four penalties that they call all of the time because it takes the judgement out. The slash with the broken stick is one of them even though they didn’t call one against Pittsburgh the other night but they decided to call us but that is neither here nor there. The shooting over the glass, the hook on anything on the hands, no matter how slight. So those are penalties the refs know that if they see they can put their hand up and they can’t get called on it. All of the others are judgement calls and I would like to see some sort of variation of letting the refs have some judgement on how hard the slash was because some of these sticks can break if you breathe on them. Some you can use a sledgehammer on them. I wish the referees didn’t have the automatic judgement if the sticks breaks or if he knocks it out of his hands then it is a penalty. But that is not for me to answer, that is for [NHL Director of Officiating] Stephen Walkom to decide and [NHL Director of Hockey Operations] Colin Campbell and we’ll find out if there is a possibility if they could have a good middle ground there,” said Boudreau on how he sees the games are being officiated now.

Breakdown Day

Today was breakdown day at Kettler Ice Plex as the Washington Capitals were conducting exit interviews with the players before they head out of town for the summer. Boudreau and McPhee discussed alot of things about the team and the players were also available as they floated in and out of the locker room.

More Game 7 Thoughts

Here are some excerpts from Boudreau on Game 7 and not moving on to the Eastern Conference Finals:

“I’m not sure why we picked that night to have a clunker…only thing I can think of is it was our fifth elimination game and it was their first and their is such a different feeling of determination and maybe we were a little too complacent in game seven thinking, ok, we are going to stave off elimination again and didn’t have the same feeling as game six. It certainly didn’t feel that way in and around the dressing room before the game. You search for answers and you don’t want one game to ruin a heckuva of a good season.”

“I think we are all bummed out because watching last night we felt we certainly could have beaten either Boston or Carolina, you turn it on and watch it, then turn it off, then turn it on and watch it and get so mad thinking we are capable of beating the next next teams and then it would give me hope saying we are very close. I don’t know what has to be done but I think we are a real good team now with certainly the core coming back, if you look at the Alex’s and the Nicky’s, and the Semin’s and Green’s are under contract so there is high optimism for the future and beyond. At this point, I want to take a day off and then start again.”

“Every year your younger players are going to take lessons and be more mature. You look at Mike [Green] being 23 and Alex [Ovechkin] 23, and Nicky [Backstrom] being 21, and [Alex] Semin 25, these guys are going to take this as an experience and be more mature when the situation comes next year. They understood what it took to get beyond the first round this year, I think, because of the year’s previous experience. I think this experience is going to make them be better and be able to go further in the future.”

Injury and Contract News

Below is a rundown on the players as provided to the media by both Boudreau and McPhee today. Boudreau did comment that “All of our key players had an injury.”

Alexander Ovechkin: Injured his groin in game four of the Rangers series and also hurt his wrist sometime in the playoffs. Both injuries required pain injections before games. Can you imagine what Ovechkin might have done in the Penguins series had he been 100% healthy? The Great #8 had 14 points in 7 games in a losing effort.

Alexander Semin: McPhee said that #28 suffered a really bad sprained thumb in the playoffs and that it had to be frozen so that Semin could play some of the games. He had a tough time holding the stick so that explains a good part of the reason why he became invisible in much of the Penguins series after a decent first round against the Rangers. McPhee was also asked if he will be working on a long term contract for Semin this summer, since #28 only has 1 more year left on his current deal, and the GM was non-committal on whether he would be doing that. In fairness to Semin, he was non-committal on a long term deal for Nicklas Backstrom, who only has 1 year left, as well.

Goalies/Simeon Varlamov: The young goalie will not go down to Hershey to play because Boudreau said he is emotionally spent. He felt that perhaps the weight of five elimination games, and he won the first four, might have finally caught up to #40 in game seven when he struggled on the second, third, and fourth Pittsburgh goals. Boudreau also said it makes no sense to have him go down there and become the backup goalie with the way Michael Neuvirth is playing (had back to back shutouts in games 6 and 7 of the Wilkes-Barre Scranton series to carry Hershey into the Eastern Conference Finals versus the Providence Bruins). McPhee said the number one goalie job will be decided in training camp between #40, Jose Theodore, Neuvirth, and even perhaps Brent Johnson, although Johnson is the only one without a current contract for next season. Theodore apparently told the media (I had left by that point) that he plans to be the #1 goalie for the 2009-10 season. Boudreau says “he sees [the competition] as a great battle.”

Mike Green: He was a hot topic and both McPhee and Boudreau would not elaborate on his injury. They merely said he was having more tests but it appears the shoulder that he originally injured when trying to skate around Chris Pronger and three other Ducks back in November still has not fully healed. It does not look like #52 or any other Capital will need surgery based on what McPhee told the media. I asked Boudreau what Green had to do to avoid the big hits he took this year, especially when he became a big target of the opposition in the playoffs. “I think that is experience. He has seen it now, he knows what to expect and nobody likes to get hit so as quick as he is he is going to have to get quicker,” finished Boudreau on the Norris Trophy candidate.

Other defensemen: Tom Poti played with a fractured foot since game 1 of the Penguins series and John Erskine also suffered a fractured foot (missed two games). Morrisonn had an injured ankle that he suffered in game five of the Penguins series and also was dealing with groin issues. It is no wonder the Caps had a hard time getting the puck out of their own end given that four of their top six defensemen were badly banged up.

Sergei Fedorov: Both McPhee and Boudreau were non-committal on #91′s return but said a lot of that would be up to Sergei. Fedorov told the media that he wants to come back next year and had his agent seek out an extension back in January, which the Caps have delayed until the off-season. It will be interesting to see how much (or little) money the three time Stanley Cup Champion will take to come back and play next season. Boudreau raved about his leadership and apparently #91 still loves being around the younger players.

Viktor Kozlov: Another free agent who really wants to come back and play for the Caps next season.

Donald Brashear: Ovechkin said the Caps need him back or, at a minimum, someone who can fit his role as policeman.

Michael Nylander: Both McPhee and Boudreau described #92′s season as “A tough year.” It is clear Nylander does not fit on this team but McPhee did say it does not make financial sense to buy him out. He also said he wasn’t sure Nylander could come back and play for this team, therefore, the options left appear to be a trade (unlikely given the contract – 2 more years at $5.5 and $3M), send him to the minors, or ask him to retire.

Evaluation Process

McPhee said the evaluation process is that he talks to each player, the coaching staff, and then next week the pro scouting staff comes in to offer their perspectives on things. Once the GM has all of that info he then will start making his decisions on personnel, to include the coaching staff. Boudreau is a lock to be back but as for assistant coaches Dean Evason and Jay Leach there was no firm commitment given to them returning by either Bruce or George. As far as the system goes, Boudreau felt that what he asking of his players does not need changing but some of the guys aren’t getting the message.

“I don’t think it’s systems. We just have to get them to play the systems a little bit better. They’ve learned it for a year now. I’m not in charge of the personnel. But we’ll see what the personnel looks like next year. Sometimes you try to change people and sometimes they don’t want to change. Every team in the NHL would love guys who drive to the net. That’s one thing coaches love. But sometimes you have guys who you know are going to play a little bit on the perimeter. You can tell them until the cows come home but it doesn’t always work. But they have such great strengths in other areas. What do you do? That is not even a system thing because every team, that is what you preach going to the net, going to the net. You either go to the net because you don’t mind it or you don’t,” said Boudreau.

NHL Playoffs

The schedule for the Conference Finals has been released and the Chicago Blackhawks will meet the Detroit Red Wings in game one of the Western Conference Finals on Sunday at 3pm on NBC and on Monday night the Penguins will host the Carolina Hurricanes at 730pm in game one of the Eastern Conference Finals on Versus. I’ll have my series predictions up tomorrow night but given that I’ve been on the Detroit bandwagon all year you can bet I’m picking them.

Memorial Cup

The Memorial Cup, the Canadian Hockey League Championship, began today from Rimouski, Quebec City. All of the games are on the NHL Network so even down here in the United States hockey fans can follow the games. The teams involved are the host team (Rimouski Oceanic of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League), the Kelowna Rockets (Western Hockey League Champions), the Windsor Spitfire (Ontario Hockey League Champions), and the Drummondville Voltigeurs (QMJHL Champions). Last year the Spokane Chiefs of the WHL won and in game one tonight Kelowna was quite impressive in defeating Rimouski, 4-1. Calgary Flames 2007 first round draft choice (24th overall), Mikael Backlund, had a superb game Friday and I was also impressed with big, mobile defenseman Tyler Myers (12th overall pick by the Buffalo Sabres in the 2008 NHL entry draft) and forward Jamie Benn (2007 5th round pick by the Dallas Stars). All of those players are with Kelowna. Windsor has a really good team as well so I expect them to battle the Rockets for the trophy.

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Caps Season Over But Future is Bright

Posted on 14 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

So it is now almost 24 hours since the debacle that was game 7 against Pittsburgh on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center and it is time for the Caps players, organization, and their fans to start putting aside the disappointment and begin focusing on the franchise’s now 35 year old unfulfilled quest: The Stanley Cup.

The Caps are now 2-6 in game 7′s, I have been at every one of them, and I can tell you that last night’s was the worst of the eight games. The only good news is that I feel even better about this team than I did last year when they first made the playoffs and were basically robbed by referees Don Koharski and Paul Devorski in game 7 against Philadelphia.

Here are the positives on this season:

The Caps repeated as Southeast Division Champions (108 points, second highest in team history) and won a playoff series before losing to Pittsburgh in 7 games in round two.

Alexander Ovechkin (age 23) followed up a 65 goal, 112 point full season in 2007-08 (82 games) with a 56 goal, 110 point season in just 79 games and showed he is still the best player in the NHL and he is up for the MVP (Hart Trophy) against Evgeni Malkin and Pavel Datsyuk.

Defensemen Mike Green (age 23) continued to improve racking up 31 goals and 42 assists in just 68 games, more than a point a game! He is a finalist for the Norris Trophy, awarded to the NHL’s best defenseman.

Alexander Semin (age 25) showed that he can be one of the best players in the NHL and he led the league in scoring in October. Semin had 34 goals and 45 assists in just 62 games. He is as skilled as anyone in the entire league.

2nd year center Nicklas Backstrom (age 21) followed up a great rookie campaign by showing he is a big time #1 center in the NHL with 22 goals and 66 assists in a full season. He is durable, strong on the boards and his skates, and continues to improve in the face-off dot.

Rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov (age 21) emerged on the scene and promptly helped the team win a first round playoff series and was very good in the second round against Pittsburgh. Varly was 7-6 in the post season with a .918 save percentage, including two shutouts.

In addition to the five top young Caps above, the team also has a number of aged 25 and under players that contributed this season in forwards Brooks Laich (25), Boyd Gordon (25), Tomas Fleischmann (24), Eric Fehr (23), Jay Beagle (23), and Chris Bourque (23); defensemen Karl Alzner (20), Milan Jurcina (25), and Jeff Schultz (23); and rookie goalie Michael Neuvirth (21).

The team started 18-1-1 at home and the Verizon Center is as loud as any building in the league, rivaling Chicago for the top spot in that category. The fan base has exploded in the region (Game 7 received a 3.4 rating on Comcast in Baltimore) and season tickets are sold out for next year. Clearly the “Rock the Red” marketing campaign has been a huge success.

The future is bright but this team has areas it needs to improve on if they are going to achieve their goal of winning a Stanley Cup. This improvement will come from the natural maturation and development process that the current young players typically go through and be enhanced by additional coaching attention. In addition, with several contracts expiring (Sergei Fedorov, Viktor Kozlov, Donald Brashear, Shaone Morrisonn, and Brent Johnson) and at least one that should get dealt with via a buyout (Michael Nylander), GM George McPhee will have some salary cap space, something he didn’t have much of this season, to work with to improve this team. However, he will have to give Backstrom big money after 2009-10 and Semin is up as well after next season and will likely want a large chunk of change so George needs to be smart about a budget that could possibly decrease (due to the economy) from the projected 2009-10 salary cap of $54M to $56M to a lower figure in the outyears.

As for the individual improvements, here are my thoughts on some of the players:

The Great #8: Develop a better backhand shot. I’m convinced that if Ovechkin improved his backhand he could possibly break Wayne Gretzky’s single season goal record of 92. Can you imagine how scared defensemen would be if they had to worry about Ovechkin cutting to his backhand a larger percentage of the time instead of primarily going forehand? Alexander the Great also needs to decrease the number of turnovers he has at the opponents blue line.

Green: The great skating, free wheeling #52 can improve his decision making and positioning. Sometimes it is best to dump the puck in instead of trying to go through several opponents and open yourself up to big hits. Who knows how that hit he took from Chris Pronger back in November impacted the rest of his season and the playoffs? Clearly he was injured in the playoffs and was not himself. Good positioning will likely decrease the number of hits he exposes himself too. A summer of watching Nicklas Lidstrom tapes might be some good homework for Greenie.

Semin: Learn to dump the puck more. #28 had far too many turnovers trying to do too much and there was a stretch in January where he routinely took bad penalties after a miscue. Semin is way stronger on the boards than people give him credit for so if he simplifies in some areas he can be a monster force for an entire season instead of in bursts. Some of this has to do with his decision making and some of this is attitude. I’ve heard from sources inside the game that he is prone to not caring about the game, at times.

Varlamov: The athletic young goalie needs to learn positioning better, improve his English so he can communicate with his team, and also get better at stick handling. A goalie who can play the puck properly is like an extra defensemen and that ability can significantly lessen the number of hits his defensemen take from opposing forwards throughout the year. It remains to be seen if Varly can carry a #1 goaltending load but his insane flexibility should help him avoid injuries. But classic butterfly goalies put a pounding on their bodies so workload will be something the Caps need to watch with their young net minder.

Backstrom: Shoot the puck more. #19 has one of the best shots on the team but he typically looks to pass first. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau did get the young Swede to shoot more often but he could fire the biscuit even more frequently. Continue to improve from the face-off dot. Backstrom was so much better at this towards the end of the season. Perhaps a phone call or session with the great Dale Hunter (aka Chum) could take him to an elite NHL level in a very important category. I’m sure teammate Dave Steckel could help him as well.

From a team standpoint, Boudreau and assistant coaches Dean Evason and Jay Leach need to help improve its ability to play away from the puck. Too many times in the playoffs Caps players were in the right area to make a play (i.e, they outnumbered the opponent) but didn’t execute and ended up giving up a goal (either in their own zone or due to misplays in the neutral zone that led to odd man rushes). Boudreau and his staff preached dumping the puck and going to the net. The third and fourth line seemed to get this most nights but the skilled guys weren’t always buying in. It seemed that the team learned some of that as the playoffs went on. The Rangers and Pittsburgh were very good at doing this while the Caps were effective only in bursts (like the 3rd period of game 7 against New York).

During the regular season Washington had some stretches of off nights, especially against Western Conference teams, and often would win games on skill rather than working hard for a full 6o minutes. Next year the Caps need to use the regular season to hone their system and be ready when the playoffs start, unlike this year where it took them two games to get going. Who knows how much of that extra work and pounding hurt them as they moved on the Penguins series? The Caps need to develop a killer instinct and dispose of lesser talented teams more easily by ramping up their work ethic.

Going to the net and paying a physical price is something the Caps are still learning. One could argue that other than Brooks Laich they don’t really have a player that can crash the net or score ugly goals like Detroit has in Tomas Holmstrom and Johan Franzen or the Penguins have in Bill Guerin, Chris Kunitz, and even Sidney Crosby who converted several “lay-ups” against Washington in the second round. I will guess that a power forward is on McPhee’s shopping list when free agency starts on July 1.

On the flip side, the Caps don’t do a good job of clearing their own net. John Erskine, Shaone Morrisonn, and Milan Jurcina are the more physical defensemen but only #4 really is a force that other teams might fear. Alzner, who is more of a puck moving and solid positioning d-man, is not going to be that type of player when he comes up next year so McPhee will likely be shopping in this market in free agency as well.

Overall, team chemistry is very good because these guys like playing with each other but to win a Stanley Cup takes learning and commitment.  The Edmonton Oilers teams that were led by Gretzky, Mark Messier, Paul Coffey, and Grant Fuhr had two straight playoff years, 1981 and 1982, where they did not advance past the second round before going to the Stanley Cup Finals in 1983 and then winning their first Stanley Cup in 1984. Each year they continued to learn more and more of what it takes to succeed in the season that matters (the playoffs). If this highly skilled Washington team wants to reach the Stanley Cup Finals next year they need to make a full commitment to a stronger work ethic on and off the ice starting now.

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Orioles make it two in a row with mini-sweep of Twins

Posted on 08 May 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

It wasn’t a textbook victory last night for the Orioles (12-17) but they’ll take wins anywhere they can find them. After an evening of soggy weather and a six-inning win on Wednesday night, the Birds came back to Camden Yards and finished the mini-sweep with a 5-4 win over the Twins led by Melvin Mora and unlikely Lou Montanez.

Mora homered in the second and got on base in the eighth before Montanez singled to left to account for the game-winning RBI.

The usual speedy work of Brad Bergesen on the hill picked up the pace of the game, but he was in trouble most of the evening and worked some Houdini magic to avoid big innings. All told, the Twins managed 14 hits off of O’s pitching — including 11 off Bergesen in just six innings — but could never plate runs in bunches.

Reliever Chris Ray struggled in the 7th inning, allowing the Twins to tie the game after inheriting a one-run lead, but Jim Johnson was stellar in the 8th inning to vulture a victory and George Sherrill managed to finish a sweaty 9th to earn fifth save of the year.

Afterward, manager Dave Trembley gave praise liberally, especially to Mora whom he discussed in his pre-game speech.

Prepare the pinstripes: the Yankees (13-15) come to town mired in an early-season funk for three games at Camden Yards this weekend.

Tonight it’s a rematch of the Opening Day starters: C.C. Sabathia (1-3. 4.85) vs. Jeremy Guthrie (2-2, 5.05).

On Saturday, it’ll be Phil Hughes (1-1, 2.70) and Adam Eaton (1-3, 7.18) and Sunday afternoon Joba Chamberlain (1-1, 3.77) will face Koji Uehara (2-3, 4.42).

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Adam Eaton pitches a gem, Birds beat Pale Hose 6-0

Posted on 23 April 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

Well, just when you think you’ve seen it all, right? Tonight Adam Eaton, the former O’s No. 5 starter, went 7 1/3 innings and held even his harshest skeptics spellbound with a dazzling 6-hit, 9-strikeout effort while surrendering just two runs upon his exit in the EIGHTH inning.

Lo and behold, the Orioles have won yet another series, beating the White Sox 6-2 tonight at Camden Yards. Everyone got into the act with some offense. Aubrey Huff, Ty Wigginton and even Felix Pie contributed two hits and Adam Jones, Nick Markakis Luke Scott and Cesar Izturis also got hits.

I think Buck Martinez did himself proud with this profound statement: “I like pitchers but I’m happy to have seen only three of them tonight!” Amen, Buck!

The game was a brisk 2:31 affair. Good pitching. Good hitting. Hasty baseball. There were only about 6,000 there but they were treated to an old-school Orioles effort tonight.

Adam Eaton showed some heart tonight. The offense battled early, stranding runners all over the place. But they proved tough. Next up: Koji Uehara and the Rangers and the Saturday “doubleheader” with purple caps.

Bring on the summer weather!

9:15 p.m. — Adam Eaton just walked off the hill to a standing ovation from about 6,000 faithful at Camden Yards tonight. I’ve been watching in amazement as he looks like Steve Stone in his prime to me. Maybe the Steve Stone appearance on WNST yesterday made me think about his greatness during the 1980 season.

His line against the Chicago White Sox is a gem by any standard: 7 1/3 IP, 6H, 0R, oW, 9 strikeouts.

WOW. I’ve been speechless most of the night. Who knew? Late maturity? A one-night wonder? The beginning of a trend?

Of course, at 102 pitches, Dave Trembley just came to get him and he’ll rest up to go again next week.

It’s 6-0 Birds up in the 8th. Jim Johnson is trying to get the White Sox back into the game with the bases loaded.

The crowd tonight looks so light on TV that they’re having trouble finding packs of people standing together to shoot. I’ve honestly never seen it more empty than the last two nights.

I hope the Ravens giving tickets away actually gets some people to walk in on Saturday night. And the weather is supposed to be crazy good!

Jim Thome has just knocked in two runs. So much for the shutout…

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Orioles Win a Wild One

Posted on 14 April 2009 by Nicholas Miskelly

 Orioles Win a Wild One

 

If you love offense then you loved watching the Orioles game today.  Pitching was not at a premium as the Orioles out slug the Texas Rangers and hold on late as they take the first game of the series 10-9 to move to 5-2 on the year.

 

The Orioles only scored in three innings today but when they did score-boy did they score.  They started of fast as the jump out early putting 2 runs up in the first.  The offense showed resilience today as they quickly jumped back into the lead in the 4th inning by scoring 5 runs the inning after the Rangers grabbed the lead for the first and only time in the game.

 

The offense continued in the 5th as they scored their final 3 runs of the contest capped by Wigginton’s RBI single to left, his second RBI of the game.  Pie led off the inning with a deep bomb to left, his first of what will hopefully be many homeruns in an Orioles uniform.

 

Things got exciting in the 6th again as the Rangers continued to battle back.  After Uehara loaded the bases, Baez entered and got out of the inning after allowing all three of the inherited runners to score. 

 

Baez got slammed in the 7th by Jones as he hit a 2 run homer to make the score 10-9.  Walker and Johnson combined for a 1,2,3 eight which took us into the ninth when Sherrill entered and as usual with him came a lot of fireworks and some very good fortune. 

Earlier today I blogged about how the Orioles fundamentals were not where they needed to be especially as it pertains to base running.  Well today the Orioles won this game because of the Rangers, in particular Ian Kinsler’s, terrible base running.  Kinsler lead off in the 9th with a double to left.  Trouble loomed as Young followed with a blast to deep right field.  Nick Markakis saved the game with an outstanding running catch as he reached over his head snatching the ball as it was about to hit the wall.  This kept the winning runner from getting on base with what would have been at least a double.  But what really preserved the lead was the atrocious decision on the part of Kinsler not to tag.  In fact, as I watched Nick make the catch, I yelled “get it in!”  Then I realized there was no need to rush it in because for some reason Kinsler did not tag. What a break.   Just as I was explaining how lucky we just got, Hamilton hit a ball to medium deep center.  There’s the answer.  If Kinsler would have tagged as he should have, the game would have been tied and we would have been hoping for extra innings.  Instead, thanks to Markakis’ incredible catch and Kinsler’s equally incredible decision not to tag, the Orioles pulled out a magical victory in an offensively explosive game.

It is games like this in which plays seem to fall our way that has me thinking maybe, just maybe, the magic is back at the yard.  Well see how long the magic sticks around but come August I would love to be able to say ’09 Orioles:

 

Why Not!!!!!!

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Caps Win Behind Varlamov; Devils Lose

Posted on 07 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Washington Capitals rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov stopped 29 of 31 shots, many of them on quality chances including a great one on Ilya Kovalchuk from point blank range in the first period, to lead the Caps to a 4-2 victory in Atlanta and move the Caps within one point of clinching second place in the Eastern Conference. Varlamov, who will not turn 21 until April 27th, is now 4-0-1 on the season with a .918 save percentage. Tonight he allowed an inconsistent Capitals performance to be turned into the team’s first win in Phillips Arena in three tries this season. The Caps won the season series from Altanta, 4-2, and are now 15-7 in Southeast Division contests. Washington’s final two games are in Tampa on Thursday (Caps are 5-0 vs. the Lightning) and in Florida on Saturday (Caps are 3-2 vs. the Panthers). Either one Caps point or one missed Devils point will lock up second place for Washington and mean that they will likely face Montreal or the Rangers in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which start next week.

With goalie Brent Johnson still out recovering from hip surgery, Varlamov’s performance tonight had to make Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and GM George McPhee feel pretty confident that the young netminder could come in and handle things in a playoff series, if necessary. But let’s face it, the Caps are going to ride #1 goalie Jose Theodore as much as possible in this post season.

Also very good for the Caps tonight was their penalty killing, which stopped all six Thrasher power plays despite defenseman Tom Poti (sore groin) being out of the lineup. The sore groin explains a good portion of the reason why #3 seems to have been struggling lately. To successfully kill penalties everything starts with your goalie, at least that is what Rod Langway used to tell me, and tonight Varlamov did his part and the shorthanded Cap skaters did a superb job as well clogging the passing lanes, blocking shots, and making decent clears. Last time Washington was in Atlanta the Thrashers scored on their first three power play chances but they would get the donut hole on Tuesday.

Sergei Fedorov had the insurance goal tonight thanks to Alexander Ovechkin (2 assists) crashing the net but he took three penalties, allowed Marty Reasoner to deflect Tobias Enstrom’s point blast by Varlamov in the second period, and was only four and nine on face-offs. #91 still does not look 100% healthy to me.

Tomas Fleischmann’s first goal was the result of a lucky bounce off of the Thrashers but as Boudreau said last Friday night, when you are playing well you make your own breaks. #14 is rounding into form right now with his 19th goal of the season, he also added  an assist, and was +2 for the evening. He is also getting better at killing penalties. Could he be this year’s John Druce?

Eric Fehr, Nicklas Backstrom, Brian Pothier, and John Erskine were all also +2 for the game.

The Thrashers first goal was a colossal defensive breakdown as Milan Jurcina fumbled the puck in his skates while the rest of the Caps vacated the center of the ice leaving Varlamov to try and fend off Ron Hainsey and Rich Peverley on his own (Peverley scored on a nice backhand fake but he had all day to make the move). These type of breakdowns must be eliminated when the post season begins.

I’m not sure who picked the stars in Atlanta tonight but I don’t know what game he or she was watching, Varlamov was the clear #1 star in my book.

Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins, who had two assists in Pittsburgh’s 6-4 win over Tampa tonight, still leads #8 by two points with two games to go in the scoring race. A tie between the two at the end of the year would result in the Art Ross Trophy for the Great #8 since he has more goals (55 to 34). Ovechkin will get the Rocket Richard Trophy for most goals and also should win the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) but Alex would trade all of these trophies for the Stanley Cup.

The Caps are only one point away from clinching second place because Martin Brodeur turned in another subpar performance on Tuesday giving up four goals on 18 shots while Martin Gerber (who was also great against the Caps this season) stopped 47 of 48 shots to lead the Leafs to a 4-1 victory at The Rock. Brodeur, since setting the record for most wins by an NHL goalie a couple of weeks back, has really struggled lately. For once I say let the Leafs fans party on Yonge Street after this one as they did Washington a huge favor.

Up I-95 in Philadelphia on Tuesday night the Flyers dealt the Florida Panthers a major blow to their playoff chances with a 2-1 victory. Anyone who saw the highlights of this one knows that Florida goalie Tomas Vokoun, who made some very good saves in the contest, gave up a bad goal to Jeff Carter to cost his team the game. The Panthers are two points behind the Rangers and three points behind the Canadiens with two games to go. Florida is at Atlanta on Thursday and then host Washington on Saturday. Montreal is at Boston on Thursday and then host the Penguins on Saturday while the Rangers host the Flyers on Thursday and then go to Philly on Sunday. I don’t see Florida getting in the post season and GM Jacques Martin’s decision to not move impending free agent defenseman Jay Bouwmeester looks even worse now.

The Flyers have clinched a playoff berth but likely can’t win the Atlantic Division (Devils need one point to clinch) so they have to be focused on trying to beat out the Penguins and the streaking Hurricanes for fourth place in the Eastern Conference. Carolina won their ninth game in a row (thumped the Islanders 9-0) but only have two games left while the Flyers have three (they have the Islanders on Saturday to go with the two Ranger games).

That is it for now as I’m off to watch Calgary and Vancouver. A Flames win in regulation clinches the Northwest Division title for them and the #3 seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The Canucks lead 1-0 midway through the 2nd period.

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Caps Beard-a-thon, News, and NHL Tidbits

Posted on 06 April 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Beard-a-thon

With April comes the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the NHL and the famed “Playoff Beard.” The playoff beard is one of the most popular superstitions in all of sports. The player stops shaving his beard when his team enters the playoffs and does not shave until his team is eliminated or wins the Stanley Cup. It is believed that the tradition was started in the 1980s by the four-time Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders, whose team members refrained from shaving during postseason play. This was done so that the team’s luck would not be disrupted during a series. In recent years other sports and other players have claimed the playoff beard tradition, but it is and always will be a hockey tradition.

In honor of this the Washington Capitals are staging a Beard-a-thon to raise money for charity and are encouraging fans to participate in one of hockey’s most visible traditions — the playoff beard. Fans may elect to grow a beard themselves or make a financial donation in support of a Capitals player or a fan who has elected to grow a playoff beard. All proceeds will benefit Washington Capitals Charities.

Participants in the Capitals’ Beard-a-thon can invite family members, friends and business associates to pledge money for their playoff beard. Some of the participants in the Beard-a-thon are Comcast SportsNet anchors Brent Harris, Chick Hernandez, Michael Jenkins, Chris Miller and Russ Thaler. WJFK 106.7 FM’s John “Cakes” Auville from the Junkies, Chad Dukes from the Big O and Dukes Show and nationally syndicated personality Mike O’Meara from the Mike O’Meara Show will also participate in the Beard-a-thon. Money will be donated to Washington Capitals Charities for everyday that a fan maintains his beard. Fans who do not wish to or are unable to grow a playoff beard can participate by pledging a donation to your favorite Caps player. For more information or to enroll in the Capitals’ Beard-a-thon, log onto www.beardathon.com/capitals.

The fan who raises the most money will win an authentic lettered jersey signed by the player of their choice and will be recognized at a Washington Capitals home game during the 2009-10 season, second place will win a team-signed stick, while third place will win an Alex Ovechkin signed puck. All donations for the Capitals’ Beard-a-thon are tax deductible.

Caps News

Rookie goalie Simeon Varlamov, who is 3-0-1 with a .914 save percentage will be in net in Atlanta when the Caps take on the Thrashers on Tuesday night. This move makes sense because #1 goalie Jose Theodore has had two bad outings in Phillips Arena this season (and the team wasn’t very good in front of him either) plus Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau wants to get Varlamov another game before next week’s playoffs as it looks like #40 will be the back-up goalie in the first round of the playoffs (although Brent Johnson is skating and improving from his hip surgery).

The Caps are 0-2 in Atlanta this year and with the New Jersey Devils home against Toronto on Tuesday night Washington likely needs to win to maintain its two point lead over the Devils for second place in the Eastern Conference. If Washington plays like it did in the first 40 minutes of Sunday’s game at the Verizon Center it will lose and if they put forth an effort like they did in the final 20 minutes they will blow Atlanta out.

Caps and hockey fans should check out the TSN end of season NHL awards preview at http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/story/?id=273944. The panel likes Ovechkin to repeat as Hart Trophy winner (NHL MVP) and Mike Green to win the Norris Trophy (NHL’s best defensemen). I thought this piece was interesting but this part by former Cap Keith Jones really drew my attention:

————–

Jones: The only defenceman for the Washington Capitals is Green and and he should win the Norris because he has no help on the blueline. Milan Jurcina is the second highest scoring defenceman on the Capitals with 14 points and the Bruins gave him away. Tom Poti is the third highest scoring defenceman with 13 points. Green is +24 on a team without a goaltender.

————–

I’m not sure how many Caps games Jones has watched this season but the “team without a goaltender” line is not accurate. Jose Theodore has been among the top goaltenders in the league since December 23rd (as long as he doesn’t try to shoot for any open nets!). While I think the Caps defense is likely their weak spot, Scott Cullen of TSN ranks the crew 7th overall in the NHL (http://www.tsn.ca/columnists/scott_cullen/?id=273658). Jonesy’s statements disappointed me but then again this is the guy who was called up to be an extra skater in the playoffs and sat behind me on the plane on the way back from Pittsburgh in 1992, yet years later in his book we find out he was rooting against the Caps because he didn’t want to have to keep skating hard in practice each day. The Caps blew a 3-1 series lead that year and the hockey gods paid Jonesy back big time by putting him on teams that lost three 3-1 playoff series leads in his career.

NHL Tidbits

Bad game by the Montreal Canadiens tonight as they blew a 2-1 lead and were beaten by the Ottawa Senators, 3-2, at the Bell Centre in Montreal. The 7th place Canadiens had a chance to move up in the Eastern Conference standings but remain at 92 points with just three games to go. The Florida Panthers and New York Rangers both have 89 points and have three games remaining as well. The Habs are at New York, at Boston, and then home against Pittsburgh and if they don’t watch it could find themselves on the golf course next week. Oh by the way, the Montreal Gazette has already picked the Caps as the team they want their beloved Habs to face in the playoffs as evidenced by the following post:

“The ideal matchup [for Montreal] would be against the Washington Capitals and that’s the team the Canadiens would have played if the season ended after last night’s game.

The Caps have a potent 1-2-3 punch with forwards Alexander (The Great) Ovechkin and Alexander Semin and defenceman Mike Green. But this is the time of year when defence comes to the fore and the Caps have suspect goaltending in the person of former Canadien José Theodore and a shaky defence corps.”

Comment: I would gladly take a Washington-Montreal series although there is one thing I would not like about it – we’d have to put up with the Montreal media in the press box in DC. If a Habs-Caps series does come to fruition you can bet that these quotes will be up on the Washington locker room wall.

Big game in Vancouver on Tuesday night as the Canucks take on the Flames in a matchup that could decide the Northwest Division title. Calgary is battling the Kings at home Monday night (currently winning, 3-1, early in the 3rd period thanks to a blast by Jarome Iginla) and should they win they will be two points ahead with three games to go. The Flames are 2-1-2 against Vancouver this season. Both clubs have already clinched playoff spots but the division winner will be the third seed behind San Jose and Detroit. The loser likely gets the fourth seeded Chicago Blackhawks in the first round.

Speaking of the Red Wings, forward Marian Hossa has been a team killer the last two days. He all but ended the playoff hopes of the Minnesota Wild on Sunday with his 38th goal of the season with just 51 seconds left on NBC on Sunday (nice pass by Tomas Holmstrom and bad coverage by Wild defenseman Marek Zidlicky that allowed the two on one break) and then he added two more tallies to hit the 40 goal mark in a 4-1 win over Buffalo that have crippled the Sabres playoff hopes.

The Nashville Predators and St. Louis Blues are battling it out to make the Western Conference playoffs. They both have 86 points but the Blues have the schedule advantage playing at Phoenix, Columbus, and then at Colorado while the Predators host Chicago, then play back to back in Detroit and Minnesota. If the Preds make the playoffs this will be the fifth straight time that GM David Poile and Coach Barry Trotz will have made the post season. What is more impressive about that would be the fact that they had to gut their team after the 2007-08 season due to ownership issues. Poile has always been a shrewd GM and Trotz a superb coach (in fact, he is the only Nashville coach in team history and is second in NHL head coaching tenure behind Lindy Ruff of the Sabres). Both teams could get in if Anaheim falters but that is not likely since the Ducks are home to Dallas and then the Coyotes plus they are up two points on both teams.

One final tidbit, if you are interested in a different kind of Caps playoff gear please check out Rob Yunich’s Storming the Crease website (www.stormingthecrease.com). Rob has some neat tee shirts available including some that are sure to get under the skin of Penguins fans.

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Drinking the orange Kool Aid at Fan Fest

Posted on 04 April 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

There are two types of Orioles fans left in the Baltimore area and they are distinct groups:

Those who drink the Kool Aid…

And those, like me, who have examined the big picture of what’s happened to this franchise over the past 13 years and are pretty angry about its impact on our fun, our lives and the community.

With Opening Day looming, everyone who has EVER loved baseball perks up and pay attention. Even if it’s only to notice: “Hey, its’ Opening Day!” Most people in Baltimore realize this team won’t contend but if you love baseball you’ll at least open one eye on Monday afternoon to catch the score. I’d venture to say that 75% of the city will wake up Tuesday morning at the office and know whether the Orioles won. (That number used to be more like 98% in 1998!)

Those who unconditionally still drink the orange Kool Air or “want” to drink the Kool Aid probably went down to Fan Fast today at Camden Yards. I opted to not give Mr. Angelos any more money that he won’t spend to get the team a quality spring training facility.

Instead, I’m sitting here watching the Fan Fest festivities on MASN HD television and getting some of my WNST “CEO work” done and thinking about baseball season and how it’s going to go for the Orioles and Matt Wieters and these young players and what inevitable drama will unfold.

The only real “punishment” I’m getting for not having a press pass is being “banned” from knowing the Orioles players, which is almost ludicrous because as you saw last week, Jeremy Guthrie and Brian Roberts were happy to chat with me at the World Baseball Classic at Dodger Stadium. Charley Eckman would’ve called them “right guys” and they are decent, solid dudes. (As an aside, I also exchanged pleasantries with Davey Johnson, which is always fun.)

As a media member – well, at least I was for about 23 years until I was banned – I got to know so many of the players and what kinda guys they are. So I guess that’s my “price to pay” — I don’t get to report to you what good people the Orioles have on their team this year. Or not…

While it looked a tad bit chilly and windy at Camden Yards, the event was a “made for TV” informercial/season preview with interviews between co-workers Jim Hunter, Jim Palmer and the like of Andy McPhail, Aubrey Huff, Adam Jones, Dennis Sarfate and Ryan Freel.

They did a nice job with “get to know you” chats with these players and  I especially like that I can see Jim Palmer in high def. For a well-compensated network to finally “discover” HD in 2009 tells you all you need to know about the vision people at MASN.

But I digress…

Here are a few observations, because my seat is the same as yours at this point, which is its own unique point of view watching Jim Hunter and Amber Theoharis and others interview their co-workers in black hats that say “O’s”.

I honestly didn’t know what Ty Wigginton or Koji Uehara looked like until today. Ditto Freel, who really seemed to be a pleasant “aw, shucks” kinda guy. He reminded me of Bob Backlund back in the late 1970’s when he was a baby face.

Freel freely thanked the fans several times and seemed genuine. (As an aside, why doesn’t the owner of the team ever do that? Just come on the TV and say “thanks” on his own network that he’s making over $100 million this year on?)

Andy McPhail did a stand up with Jim Hunter and said all of the right things. He made it clear he expected a big improvement in Adam Jones. He also talked a lot about character and what kind of players — “gamers, blue collars guys, character guys” — he wants on the team. Fair enough.

I like hearing that the Orioles want good people in their organization. From what I know of the 2009 Orioles, they’re pretty good guys and they clearly dislike Angelos’ management and ownership style as much as the rest of us. (Again, this is one of the reasons the Orioles banning legitimate media isn’t a good thing for the fans. The fans never get to know the truth unless, like yesterday in The Sun, they speak out.)

I’ve known Gregg Zaun for 17 years. I’ve cheered – VERY hard – for Zaun for 17 years through his days in Kansas City, Florida, Toronto and Houston. He’s a great person and loves Baltimore and the Orioles. That’s an upgrade there no matter how you look at it and he’ll keep the seat plenty warm for Matt Wieters, whenever the Orioles decide to promote him to the bigs.

Even today on TV, a couple of the young players talked about what a cool guy Zaun is for them to be around and how he tells great stories (which he does!)

I must say that I didn’t envy Buck Martinez’s press pass today, interviewing his co-worker, Japanese pitcher Koji Uehara, whose only word in English was “Thank you!”

Uehara had an interpreter and the answer to the first question regarding Camden Yards was this: “Right field is pretty shallow.” That was the first of several laughs.

Honestly, it was like I needed an interpreter for his interpreter. It was borderline hilarious. It reminded me of my four days in Tokyo where communication was definitely at a premium.

I don’t care how much Uehara speaks. The Orioles need him to be a rock star if they’re going to win 75 games. But he seemed pleasant enough and thrilled to be at Camden Yards in a big-league uniform. Good enough for me.

If the only “communication” I’m going to have with the players is to see their co-workers ask them questions I might as well think they’re nice guys. Even if they’re complete turds, at least this won’t spoil it for me.

I’m ready for Opening Day. I’m ready to get to Hooters and have a Bud Light. I’m ready for baseball.

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