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Ovechkin, Varlamov Get Caps Win in Hotlanta

Posted on 29 October 2009 by Ed Frankovic

One week after nearly blowing a three goal lead in Atlanta and escaping with a 5-4 victory the Caps headed to the final period once again with a three goal lead at Philips Arena. Instead of putting this one away in easy fashion, Washington allowed a well rested (5 days off) Thrashers team to fire 20 third period shots on Semyon Varlamov (38 saves) and force the Caps to hang on for a 4-3 victory.

The Great #8, Alexander Ovechkin, came out with guns ablazing as the Caps dominated the first 25 minutes to take a 3-0 lead and set up what initially looked to be a walk in the park for Washington. Ovechkin had two goals and an assist while Brooks Laich added three assists. The Capitals have now won six straight games and are 8-2-2 overall. They have a 7 point lead in the Southeast Division over the Tampa Bay Lightning, who have two games in hand.

 ”It is ridiculous how we just let up and let the other team back in the game. It is just frustrating. We got up and thought it would be easy and we stopped skating….Our game is not like a faucet where we can turn it on and off and we struggled to find it again,” said a clearly disappointed Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau.

“We had opportunities and it is just like la-di-da and instead of making it 4-0 or 5-0 and letting them go home with the tails between their legs we’ve got a battle on our hands and especially with the amount of games we have this week it would have been nice to rest some guys in the third period,” finished Boudreau, whose team will quickly fly back from Atlanta late tonight and take on the Islanders at the Verizon Center on Friday night.

Ovechkin started off the scoring with a one timer on the power play off of a Mike Green feed at 10:03 of the first period. Brendan Morrison won the offensive zone face-off and Brooks Laich received the second assist by sliding the puck back to #52.

Atlanta then had a chance to rebound after the Great #8′s goal as they received a penalty shot on a Laich trip that warranted a call, but not a free attempt to score. Forward Jim Slater was not totally in the clear, as the rule states you should be to garner a penalty shot, but the referees gave him the chance to even things up anyways. However, Varlamov stood tall and stopped him and for the second straight contest a Caps goalie was the victor in the most exciting play in hockey.

Just over a minute later Maxim Afinogenov, who is typically a Caps killer, did one of his patented curl moves and fired the puck towards Washington’s net but Nicklas Backstrom was parked in the shooting lane and trapped the puck soccer style with his skate and then launched a beautiful saucer pass up the middle of the ice that sent Alexander the Great in all alone on goalie Ondrej Pavelec. Then before the young net minder could even move, Ovechkin roofed the puck quickly behind him to make it 2-0.

Washington then made it 3-0, on the power play again, after rookie Evander Kane took a hooking penalty. Ovechkin grabbed the puck below the goal, skated into the bottom of the left circle, and then feathered a pass across the seam of the Thrashers penalty killing box and Morrison fired it off of Pavelec’s glove to make it 3-0 just 4:10 into the second period and a rout appeared to be on.

However, once again the Caps took a lazy penalty late in a period, this one by Tyler Sloan who was playing left wing again tonight with all of the injuries, and it cost the Caps in the final stanza. Atlanta’s Zach Bogosian, who is an amazing talent and will likely be a thorn in Washington’s side for years to come, led off the third period by blasting one from the point by Varlamov, who was screened by Shaone Morrisonn. #26 seems to be making a habit of doing that recently.

Varlamov then made a number of big saves to keep it 3-1, including a gem on Viktor Kozlov in the slot after a Jeff Schultz giveaway (and Brian Pothier failed to properly cover the slot). Then right after Varly stopped Nik Antropov on a point blank shot in prime scoring position the Caps went on transition and had a 3 on 1 break with Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Backstrom but they could not connect. Next Mike Knuble drew a penalty going to the net but the Caps nearly gave up another shorthanded goal. Atlanta defenseman Tobias Enstrom split both Green and Ovechkin to go in alone on Varlamov but Semyon made another huge pad save to preserve the two goal lead.

The Caps appeared to have the game locked up once again after a three or four minute good stretch where they shut the Thrashers rush down, but with 2:23 to go the Washington first line was out trying to score. After a Semin shot went wide and bounced high into the slot, Kozlov hit a streaking Todd White in stride as he blew by an out of position Green and he beat Varly top shelf. The Thrashers then stormed the Caps net by pulling their goalie but Tom Poti and Laich made good plays to clear the zone allowing Knuble to hit the empty net with just under 53 seconds left to make it 4-2 Washington. Bogosian then tipped one in at the buzzer to make it 4-3.

Here are some thoughts and analysis on a game that saw the Jeckyl and Hyde of the Caps:

Why are the Caps still winning despite not putting in anything close to a full 60 minutes of effort? Goaltending! Jose Theodore and Varlamov (now 5-0) have been superb and tonight and Tuesday were the best performance by each this season. Boudreau may not be happy about the play of his skaters but if he can keep getting solid goaltending, like #60 and #40 are providing, Washington will shatter the club record for wins. The competition in goal is clearly making both Theodore and Varlamov take their respective games to an elite level.

The Great #8 was incredible the first 25 minutes flying all over the ice. Ovechkin now as 13 goals and 9 assists (in 12 games) to lead the NHL in goals and points. By the way, last year’s league leader in points, Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh, is out two to three weeks with a shoulder strain.

Washington was outshot 41-32, lost the face-off battle, 31-29, and was 2 for 5 on the power play. They were called for three infractions, the Laich trip that led to the Slater penalty shot, the Sloan lazy hook, and a Poti hold. Atlanta went 1 for 2 with the man advantage.

The Caps defense made a lot of mistakes tonight and Varlamov bailed them out, much like Theodore did on Tuesday against the Flyers. Laich credited the Thrasher onslaught to the fact that Atlanta was off for 5 days but Boudreau won’t buy that one. If this defense does not shape up soon, they have given up over 80 shots in the last two games, you can bet that Boudreau and GM George McPhee will make some changes once they clear some salary cap room (Michael Nylander is playing well in his conditioning/showcasing stint in Grand Rapids hopefully convincing someone to want him). Washington Caps website outstanding writer, Mike Vogel, attended Hershey’s last game on Sunday and he told me that defenseman Karl Alzner played extremely well, something I also heard from Bears play-by-play man John Walton a few weeks ago. As those of you who read this blog know, I would like to see #27 up with the big club as soon as possible.

Please check out WNST.Net during the Caps game on Friday night as I will be posting thoughts as the Caps-Islanders contest unfolds via WNST’s twitter account, as I did tonight (you can view those on the front left of the home page on the WNST website). As always, I will have a blog with analysis on the game sometime after it ends.

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Mid-July NHL Off-Season Analysis

Posted on 12 July 2009 by Ed Frankovic

This year I have had to wait a little longer to bring you my analysis of the NHL’s free agency signing period, which began on July 1, because with the salary cap not going up drastically for the first time since it was instituted coming out of the lock out in 2005, there are still general managers making moves, as evidenced by the Caps inking of center Brendan Morrison this past Friday night.

Despite the fact that the salary cap increased just $100,000 to $56.8M next season, there are still teams who have been very active and spent a lot of money, such as the Blackhawks, Rangers, Maple Leafs, and Canadiens. However, the interesting thing that is happening this summer that has not occurred in years past is there are some familiar players who have not been signed yet, such as forwards Alex Tanguay (made over $5M last season in Montreal and has had his named bantered about in Nashville) and Maxim Afinogenov (Buffalo), and those guys are running out of time to find a chair before the music eventually stops.

Below is a summary of what several teams have done so far and my thoughts on the impact of those moves. I am including in this analysis any trades and significant 2009 draft choices. In general, my opinion is that the teams that did not spend a lot of money this summer on free agents did well.

Chicago Blackhawks – GM Dale Tallon has been wildly active and his biggest move was the signing of former Detroit Red Wings forward Marian Hossa to a 12-year, $62.8M contract. Hossa has been on the losing end of the last two Stanley Cup Finals and will be playing with his fourth team (Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Atlanta) in the last three seasons. They also re-signed some of their current young players giving forward Kris Versteeg a three-year, $9.2M deal and defenseman Cam Barker a three-year, $9.25M extension. 23 year old forward David Bolland, who had 47 points and was +19 in 81 games for the Hawks in 2008-09, also received a five year contract at $3.375M a season. Tallon added forwards Tomas Kopecky ($1.2M) from Detroit and John Madden ($2.75M) from New Jersey. This all comes after the GM inked goalie Cristobal Huet to a four-year deal at $5.625M a season and defensemen Brian Campbell to an eight-year deal at $7.143M a season last summer. The biggest loss was goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who bolted to the Edmonton Oilers, and they also lost forwards Martin Havlat and Samuel Pahlsson in free agency to Minnesota and Columbus, respectively. Chicago went to the Western Conference finals last season before losing to the Red Wings and they should do well in the upcoming regular season, but I have serious doubts about Huet’s ability to carry a team deep into the playoffs. The other big problem for Chicago is after the 2009-10 season they will have to give their two best forwards, Patrick Kane  ($3.725M) and Jonathan Toews ($2.8M), long term contracts with significant raises in order to keep them. Kane and Toews will likely both command around $6M a season. Overall, I don’t like what Chicago did because they spent a lot of money that very well could impact their ability to lock up their two young superstars (Kane and Toews) long-term plus they still have questionable goaltending in Huet.

Montreal Canadiens – GM Bob Gainey came into this summer with 10 unrestricted free agents and five restricted free agents on his roster. To date Gainey has not re-signed any of those 10 UFAs and included on that list were top name players Alexei Kovalev, Tanguay, Mike Komisarek, Robert Lang, and Saku Koivu. All but Tanguay are signed by other teams. Gainey has taken the unorthodox route of over turning his roster via trades and free agency. He traded forward Christopher Higgins to the Rangers for forward Scott Gomez, but at $7.35M over the next five seasons. He then gave $6M a season for five years to Mike Cammallieri (scored 39 goals in Calgary last season) and $5M a season for five years to Brian Gionta (spent his first 7 seasons in New Jersey). To quote an NHL scout, “Gainey basically replaced a bunch of small forwards with a bunch of small forwards.” On defense he lost Komisarek to the Leafs but added Hal Gill from the Penguins for $2.25M a year for two seasons and Jaroslav Spacek from the Sabres for three years at $3.833M a season. He also signed forward Travis Moen (third line player) and journeyman defenseman Paul Mara. Overall, I am not sure what Gainey’s long term plan is as this team has gone from a early round playoff out to one that I see just fighting to get into the post season in 2009-10, at best. If I am a Habs fan I view this off-season as a colossal disaster and with the long term contracts this organization has gotten themselves into I don’t see a bright future any time soon.

New York Rangers – When GM Glen Sather worked in Edmonton he routinely complained about having to manage a small market team. However, Sather always seemed to overcome those problems and annually had the Oilers in contention for the playoffs and often with a decent chance to go deep into them. In 2000 the former great Oilers coach became President and GM of the Rangers and the Blueshirts promptly missed the playoffs their first four seasons despite the fact that the GM took advantage of the large budget afforded him. With the salary cap in place since 2005 Sather would appear to be more constrained but that hasn’t stopped him from getting the Rangers tied up in some outrageous contracts such as the deals given to Gomez, Wade Redden, and Chris Drury. New York was basically in salary cap jail coming into this off-season but thanks to Marcus Naslund retiring and the Gomez trade it looked like Sather might finally be able to back up his statements about giving the younger Rangers players a chance to develop and play. That plan lasted less than a day as Sather couldn’t resist throwing around more money and signed often injured forward Marian Gaborik, formerly of the Minnesota Wild, to a 5 year deal worth $37.5Million. Gaborik, when healthy and motivated, can be one of the best players in the league but the problem is that doesn’t happen very often. Sather also overpaid for former Sabres forward Ales Kotalik (three -year, $9M deal) and former Caps enforcer Donald Brashear (2 years for $2.8M total). Higgins, obtained in the Gomez trade, should do well in New York given that he is a Long Island native. The Rangers also lost Mara, Nik Antropov, and Colton Orr via free agency. I didn’t like the Rangers team last season and I don’t like it for 2009-10 either. The best thing they have going for them is goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who single-handidly took the Caps to a seventh game in the first round of the playoffs.

Toronto Maple Leafs – When Brian Burke took over as GM of the Leafs mid-season in one of the worst kept secrets ever, you knew he wasn’t going to stand pat and just build through the draft. Toronto has a massive fan base,  loads of financial resources, and with that comes the pressure to win right away. Fortunately for Burke he inherited arguably the Leafs best draft pick of the last 10 years in defenseman Luke Schenn (drafted fifth overall in 2008). After that Burke was smart to announce that anyone else was available via trade. The savvy GM then was able to get Thrashers GM Don Waddell to take on defenseman Pavel Kubina and his $5M salary for next season and in return received 1999 first round Atlanta draft pick in Garnet Exelby (he also received Colin Stuart in the deal). Then Burke used the cap room afforded him to sign former Canadiens defenseman Komisarek to a five-year, $22M deal and former Ducks d-man Francois Beauchemin for three years at $3.8M a season. In Tomas Kaberle, Schenn, Komisarek, and Beauchemin the Leafs have a very good top four group of defensemen. The next three best defensemen on the roster are Exelby, Mike Van Ryn and Jeff Finger but those seven total close to $23M in salary cap space so look for Burke to deal another one of that crew either before October or during the season. The Leafs still have the expensive Vesa Toskala (one more season at $4M)  in net but Burke also just signed Swedish goalie Jonas Gustavsson, who led Farjestads to the Swedish Elite League championship this past spring, to a one year deal at $810,000. This could turn out to be a major steal in the long run. Of course the Leafs still are weak up front. They drafted forward Nazem Kadri of the London Knights with the 7th overall pick in the 2009 draft and he could turn out to be a first line player, although I have concerns about his size. Overall I think the Leafs really improved their team and you can bet that Burke will continue to make changes. But Leafs fans, who are prone to overestimating their own team, should not even think about a parade on Yonge street any time in the next two seasons, at least. Making the playoffs in 2009-10 would be a major step up for Toronto and with head coach Ron Wilson’s defensive philosophy they could pull it off.

Philadelphia Flyers – Approaching the 2008-09 season trade deadline back in February there were talks that Philadelphia was making a run for a front line defenseman and Jay Bouwmeester of Florida was the name frequently linked to them. Then on the eve of the 2009 NHL Entry draft GM Paul Holmgren sent forward Joffrey Lupul, defenseman Luca Sbisa (Philly’s first round pick in the 2008 draft), their 2009 and 2010 first round draft picks, and a conditional 3rd round pick to Anaheim for defenseman Chris Pronger and forward Ryan Dingle. Next Philadelphia promptly signed the soon to be 35 year old Pronger to a seven year contract extension that averages $4.9M a season. Pronger will count $6.25M against the salary cap in 2009-10 since he is still in the last year of his previous deal. With a big three on defense of Pronger, Kimmo Timonen, and Braydon Coburn the Flyers have an outstanding trio on the backend but they are still weak in net. Holmgrem gave up on free agent goalies Martin Biron and Anterro Niittymaki and signed former Senators goalie (and some would say head case) Ray Emery for one year at $1.5M and the aging Brian Boucher at $925K a season for the next two years. Those moves are head scratchers, if you ask me. The Flyers also added bottom six forward Ian Laperrierre, who can mix it up when needed, for three years at $1.16M a season. Because of salary cap issues the Flyers had to let Mike Knuble go in free agency (Washington). Still on the books is the injury prone and pesky Danny Briere at $6.5M a season for six more years, something Flyer fans can’t be happy about. Overall the Pronger move makes Philly Stanley Cup contenders next season but the price in the long term may be too costly given that they will likely go three years (counting Sbisa) without a number one pick in a salary cap era where building through the draft is a must.

Calgary Flames – Calgary was in such salary cap jail last spring that when they suffered a rash of injuries in March and April they could not field a full team in several games down the stretch which cost them the Northwest Division title and helped put them on their way to a first round playoff exit. GM Darryl Sutter, who is starting to feel some pressure to get his team into at least the second round of the playoffs for the first time since 2004, took a lot of heat for what some see as salary cap mismanagement. However, Sutter has continued to be aggressive in the off-season and fired coach Mike Keenan and replaced him with his brother and former Devils coach, Brent. Then he pulled off a major coup by trading a third round pick and Jordan Leopold to Florida for the rights to Bouwmeester. Sutter subsequently signed one of the best defenseman in the league to a five year deal at $6.68M a season. To make salary cap room for Bouwmeester they traded defenseman Jim Vandermeer to Phoenix in return for forward Brandon Prust and they didn’t attempt to re-sign Cammalleri. Calgary now has a top four defense of Bouwmeester, Dion Phaneuf (who struggled under Keenan but should return to top form under his former junior coach at Red Deer in Sutter), Robyn Regehr, and Cory Sarich but it comes at a price of almost $21M in salary cap space. With forwards Jarome Iginla, Olli Jokinen, and Daymond Langkow plus goalie Mikka Kiprusoff accounting for nearly $22.5M in cap space, Calgary is a top heavy team that will need to stay healthy and find the right role players to help them win in the playoffs. Still with the Bouwmeester signing the Flames are a major contender in the Western Conference.

Ottawa Senators – It is never good to be boxed into a corner by a star player but that is exactly what has happened to Ottawa GM Bryan Murray who had to be shocked to hear that superstar Dany Heatley wants to be traded despite counting $7.5M against the salary cap the next five years. Heatley, after playing in the Stanley Cup Finals, began the 2007-08 season with a six year contract extension but he now wants out. Murray, who had to pay Heatley a $4M bonus when he exercised his no trade clause and refused to be moved to Edmonton on July 2nd (despite wanting out of Ottawa), says he will now keep the 28 year old forward to start next season unless he gets a premium deal. Murray did sign Kovalev for two seasons at $5M each and re-signed tough net crashing forward Chris Neil for four years at $8M total. Sens fans are counting on Pascal Leclaire to be the #1 goalie after he was acquired from Columbus at the trade deadline in February. However, the Ottawa defense remains weak with Filip Kuba and Chris Phillips leading the way. Their future totally depends on what happens in the Heatley saga.

Washington Capitals – GM George McPhee said prior to July 1 that the Caps would not be big players in free agency and he was correct. The Caps did sign net crashing forward Knuble for two years at $2.8M a season and potential second line center Morrison for only $1.5M for next season. Those moves aren’t headline grabbers but they are low risk ones that could yield good results. Washington lost 39 year old Sergei Fedorov and underachieving forward Viktor Kozlov to the Russian league but with them went $6.5M in salary cap space. McPhee says the team will continue to build from within. GMGM will likely spend the next couple of months working on a long term deal for Nicklas Backstrom, who at just 21 years old is already one of the top centers in the NHL. The question mark over the next 12 months is what to do with the up and down Alexander Semin. Semin has the talent to be one of the best players in the league but his motivation, at times, and ability to play through injuries has held him back. There is also the danger that Semin could bolt back to Russia to play in the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL). The Caps lost tough guy Brashear in free agency and that is a void in the line-up right now but McPhee seems resolved to going without an enforcer stating recently that you only need one for about 10 games a season. Any deal to unload Michael Nylander and his $4.875M salary cap hit for the next two seasons would be a very good one and unreliable goalie Jose Theodore has one more year in DC at $4.5M unless McPhee can move him, but I don’t see that happening until the 2009-10 trading deadline. The Caps did not spend much money so I see their off-season as a good one that could get better if #92 or #60 is somehow dealt.

Pittsburgh Penguins – The Stanley Cup Champion Penguins won their title and now because of the salary cap are paying the price, especially on defense as Rob Scuderi (Los Angeles) and Gill (Montreal) both left for new deals. The good news is GM Ray Shero convinced forwards Bill Guerin and Ruslan Fedotenko to come back for one year at $2M and $1.8M, respectively. However, I was not a fan of the decision to sign restricted free agent Alex Goligoski, an offensive but slow moving defenseman, to a three year deal at $1.833M a season. They also signed defenseman Jay McKee, who was bought out by St. Louis, for one year at $800K. Defenseman Sergei Gonchar is under contract for one more year at $5M but they have the physical Brooks Orpik locked up for five more years at $3.75M a season. Pittsburgh is clearly weaker on defense since the Stanley Cup Finals but their goalie, Marc-Andre Fleury, proved to be a big time netminder in the playoffs and with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Jordan Staal, and Chris Kunitz signed for at least three more seasons this club will be contenders for the Cup again unless the injury bug hits hard.

Detroit Red Wings – Could the Wings finally be on the way down? They were beaten in the Stanley Cup Finals by the Penguins, then lost Hossa to the Hawks and Mikael Samuelsson to the Vancouver Canucks. Forward Jiri Hudler, who played well crashing the net for Detroit last season, has signed a disputed contract to play in the KHL plus Kopecky bolted to Chicago with Hossa. So that is four of their top 12 forwards gone, if Hudler isn’t legally dragged back to Motown, but they still have forwards Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg, and Johan Franzen signed under long term deals. Superstar defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom is under contract for just one more year at $7.45M and this could be it for him in the NHL as he will likely either retire or head back to play in Sweden after next season. Chris Osgood is still the #1 goalie for the next two years but he is aging. Basically GM Ken Holland has his work cut out for him but he and draft guru Jim Nill always seem to find good players to plug any holes.

Los Angeles Kings – Signed defenseman Scuderi to a four year, $13.6M deal away from the Pens and also traded defensemen Kyle Quincey and Tom Preissing plus a 5th round draft pick to the Avs for crease crasher Ryan Smyth. If the Kings can get some good goaltending next season (could young goalie Jonathan Bernier finally be ready?), Terry Murray’s young team could make the playoffs.

Vancouver Canucks – Re-signed the Sedin twins (Henrik and Daniel) at $6.1M each for five seasons and inked Samuelsson away from the Wings so they are hoping the Swedish connection works. Goalie Roberto Luongo is under contract for one more season at $6.75M and they have goalie Cory Schneider waiting in the wings in Manitoba of the AHL should they not be able to re-sign the superstar goalie (but if they can’t keep Luongo they might as well pack it in for good). Schneider will spend next season in the AHL again as GM Mike Gillis signed Andrew Raycroft to be the back up at $500K for one season. I can’t see this team going deep in next year’s playoffs as they are currently configured.

Columbus Blue Jackets – Re-signed superstar forward and 2002 1st overall NHL Entry draft selection, Rick Nash, to a eight year, $62.4M contract extension that goes into effect for the 2010-11 season. This move alone saves a franchise that had trouble generating interest until their first ever playoff appearance this past spring. GM Scott Howson also signed third line grinder and former Stanley Cup winner (Anaheim) Pahlsson for three years at $2.65M a season as well as getting Pittsburgh backup goalie Mathieu Garon for two years at $1.2M a season, which seems a little high considering that their #1 goalie will be 2008-09 rookie of the year, Steve Mason, who will count only $905K against the cap the next two years and will receive the bulk of the workload.

As for the rest of the NHL, here are some moves that I like, don’t like, as well as some things to keep an eye on before training camps open in mid September.

Like:

Tampa Bay Lightning – Signed defenseman Mattias Ohlund from Vancouver for seven years at $27.M total. This expensive move is a good one primarily because the Lightning are counting on the Swedish veteran to tutor 2009 first round pick and second overall selection, defenseman Victor Hedman, who also hails from Sweden. With last year’s number one overall pick, Steven Stamkos, and Hedman the Lightning have two players to build around plus they still have team captain Vincent LeCavalier locked up for 10 more years (and the Habs have no salary cap space to try and obtain him).

Colorado Avalance – Signed goalie Craig Anderson at $1.8M a season for two years. The Avs aren’t going to contend next year, especially after Joe Sakic retired, and they traded Smyth so this is a good chance for them to see if Anderson can be a bona fide #1 goalie. The other goalie will once again be the inconsistent Peter Budaj, who was re-signed for $1.25M for next season.

Florida Panthers – They lost Bouwmeester and pretty much gave away any chance they had of making the playoffs next season with that move but I did like the signing of former Devils goalie Scott Clemmensen at three years for $1.2M a season.

Dislike:

Minnesota Wild – Rookie GM Chuck Fletcher did a good thing letting Gaborik hit the open market but giving the often injured forward Havlat a six year, $30M deal was a mistake. Other than goalie Nickas Backstrom I do not like this team’s roster at all as it currently stands.

New York Islanders – This once proud franchise continues to make boneheaded decisions. They have goalie Rick DiPietro signed for 12 more years at a $4.5M annual cap hit yet they decide to sign 39 year old goalie Dwayne Roloson for two years at $2.5M a season????? Does that mean DiPietro is still in bad shape??? Well at least I liked that they selected John Tavares first overall in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft so Islanders fans will have something to watch and cheer for next season. Too bad they can’t seem to get out of that dump of a building in Uniondale (Nassau Coliseum) but perhaps with Tavares in the fold they can figure out a way to change that?

Things Still to Watch in this off-season:

Boston Bruins – Phil Kessel, who was the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NHL Entry Draft (right after the Caps took Backstrom), is an unsigned restricted free agent whose name was bantered about in a draft day deal that went bad between the Bruins and the Leafs. The Bruins reportedly will re-sign him but they do have some salary cap issues to deal with in order to get the forward who is recovering from off-season shoulder surgery inked long term.

San Jose Sharks – Will GM Doug Wilson stand pat after seeing his President’s Trophy winning team get knocked out by the Ducks in the first round of the playoffs? Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been heavily criticized for not delivering in the post season so is Wilson willing to roll the dice on those two guys again next season?

New Jersey Devils – With the reportedly homesick Brent Sutter now hired by the Flames who will GM Lou Lamoriello get to coach his squad next season? As I’ve blogged before, Dave Tippett would be a great fit there but there has been some talk of former Devils forward John Maclean taking over behind the bench.

Phoenix Coyotes – Off the ice the ownership situation is still up in the air and the NHL is trying desperately to keep the team in Arizona. On Saturday Coach Wayne Gretzky finally got involved in a situation that is not looking too good.

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Caps Name New Assistant Coach: Hershey’s Bob Woods / NHL News

Posted on 23 June 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Caps Name Assistant Coach

Washington Capitals Head Coach Bruce Boudreau’s named his new assistant coach on Monday and he is a very familiar name to the media and fans: Bob Woods. Woods is fresh off directing the Caps farm team, the Hershey Bears, to the 2008-09 Calder Cup. According to Boudreau, one of the main criteria in the selection was a former defenseman and since Woods is one and is very familiar with the d-men in the organization, especially young players Mike Green, Jeff Schultz, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson, it helped him a great deal. Also, the fact that he has worked with Boudreau before easily made him the front runner. This is Boudreau’s first chance to put his stamp on a coaching hire since he took over in November 2007. A new head coach in Hershey has not been named yet. Here is the official press release from the Caps:

The Washington Capitals have hired Bob Woods from the American Hockey League’s (AHL) Hershey Bears as an assistant coach, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today.

Woods, 41, served as Hershey’s head coach last season and guided the Bears to a Calder Cup championship in six games against the Manitoba Moose. He was an assistant coach with the Bears and helped current Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau lead the Bears to a Calder Cup title in 2006. Woods was appointed head coach of the Bears when Boudreau was hired by the Capitals on Nov. 22, 2007.

The Leroy, Saskatchewan, native compiled an 83-47-15 (W-L-OT) record in 145 regular season games with Hershey and was 17-10 in 27 Calder Cup playoff games. Prior to joining Hershey as an assistant coach for the 2005-06 season, Woods was the head coach of the ECHL’s Mississippi Sea Wolves from 2001-05 and compiled a 169-94-25 (W-L-T) regular-season record.

Woods was selected in the 10th round, 201st overall in the 1988 NHL Entry Draft by the New Jersey Devils. He played 13 seasons of professional hockey, including 10 in the ECHL and was a player/assistant coach with Mississippi from 1998-2001. He was a member of the 1999 Kelly Cup championship team that was coached by Boudreau. The 1998-99 season was the only year that Woods and Boudreau spent together in Mississippi.

He retired from competitive play after the 2001 season and at that time was the ECHL’s all-time leader in games played with 559 (record has since been broken). He also set an ECHL record on March 14, 1998, as a member of the Tallahassee Tiger Sharks when he fired 17 shots on goal against the Louisiana IceGators. Woods was named second team defenseman on the ECHL’s 15th anniversary team in 2003 and was also named second team defenseman on the Hockey News’ 50th anniversary All-ECHL team in 1997. He scored 176 points in 209 games with Mississippi and the Sea Wolves retired his number in October 2002.

Woods also played for Hampton Roads, Johnstown and Mobile in the ECHL and for Hershey, Portland and Utica in the AHL. He won the 1997 Calder Cup with Hershey, making him involved in the organization’s last three Calder Cups. He is the only player in Hershey’s 71-year history to win a Calder Cup as a player, assistant coach and head coach.

COMMENT: Having interviewed Woods on several occasions since last summer I think this is a good move. Boudreau should be able to bring in someone he is very comfortable working with since he inherited current assistant Dean Evason and former assistant coach Jay Leach. Woods is a very personable and sharp guy and the Caps need someone to help them with their defense, especially the young players. The fact that Woods won the Calder Cup this spring made it easier for him to leave and his goal was to get to the NHL and someday he hopes to be a head coach in the league.

Other Caps Tidbits

The NHL draft is this weekend in Montreal. Round 1 is on Friday night and will be shown on Versus starting at 7pm. Rounds 2-7 are on Saturday starting at 10am on the NHL Network. The Caps currently having the 24th pick in the first round. By the way, for a nice preview of the draft the Caps Media Relations website, Welcome to the Show, has a ton of information. So thanks to Nate Ewell, Paul Rovnak, and their staff for making it accessible to the media and fans.

Also, McPhee said today that he does not think the Caps will be participating in the Winter Classic on January 1, 2010 in Boston. Word has it that the Philadelphia Flyers will be chosen because NBC pushed for them instead of the Caps. The NHL apparently wanted Washington in the game because of the Alex Ovechkin factor – he draws lots of fan interest. Personally I think NBC is making a huge mistake choosing the Flyers over the Caps but the NHL has made a deal with the devil in NBC and are stuck with them.

NHL News

The Calgary Flames still have not named a head coach yet but all signs point to GM Darryl Sutter hiring his brother, Brent (coached the Devils the last two years), to take over for the fired Mike Keenan. I first brought you this scenario in this blog. While I think Sutter will do a good job, I believe the better hire for Calgary would be to go with Dave Tippett, the former Capitals player who was recently fired in Dallas by new GM Joe Nieuwendyk. I spoke with an NHL scout this week who is very familiar with Tippett and he says he is a good man and a good coach. If Calgary doesn’t hire the former Cap, and it looks like Brent Sutter is their man, some NHL team would be wise to snag him up. As much as I wouldn’t like to see this because he would contend with the Caps, Tippett would be a GREAT fit in New Jersey. Devils GM Lou Lamoriello is still without a head coach since Sutter resigned after New Jersey lost to the Carolina Hurricanes in the first round. Former Devil player and current assistant coach John Maclean has been linked to the job by some media outlets.

Tippett made the playoffs in each of his first five seasons before missing this past year. He led the Stars to two division titles and took Dallas to the Western Conference Finals in 2007-08 before losing to Detroit. However, Tippett was stuck with having to deal with Sean Avery after co-GM’s Brett Hull and Les Jackson signed the whacky forward despite protests from Tippett and several top players including Mike Modano, Brendan Morrow, and Marty Turco. Avery, as everyone now knows and I warned about in this blog last summer, wrecked the Dallas locker room. Tippett not only had to deal with the Avery situation but also a season ending ACL injury to Morrow in November after the team captain only played 18 games plus the Brad Richards wrist injury in February. The Stars turned things around for awhile despite the distractions and injuries but ended up finishing in 12th place, eight points out of the playoffs. I think Nieuwendyk made a huge mistake by letting Tippett go. There will be a GM who will get smart and hire Tippett, at some point, and end up looking like a genius.

Back to the NHL draft, I still think the New York Islanders should take London Knights forward John Tavares with the first overall pick in the 2009 Entry draft on Friday night. The next two projected best players are defensemanVictor Hedman of Sweden and forward Matt Duchene of the Brampton Battalion. However, former Flames GM Craig Button (now with the NHL Network) believes the Isles should pick Hedman because New York needs a top defenseman to go up against guys like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Ovechkin on a regular basis. Another draft eligible defenseman that I really like is Spokane’s Jared Cowan, who won the Memorial Cup in 2008 and looked like a sure top five pick until he injured his knee last winter. Cowan is big (6′ 5″ and 220 lbs.) and could really skate before his knee injury so it will be interesting to see if he remains a high pick despite possible questions on his health.

This will be an interesting draft weekend as it seems to be one of the few times during the year that trades actually occur. I would not be surprised if McPhee makes a deal to get the Caps either a second line center or a physical defensemen. To me the bigger need right now is a second line center since Michael Nylander appears done and Sergei Fedorov is an unrestricted free agent. The Pittsburgh Penguins are loaded at center with Crosby, Malkin, and Jordan Staal so to compete with them next season Washington needs to get better up the middle of the ice.

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Ovechkin Should Win Hart; Caps Re-sign Laing; Caps Re-Runs Air Next Week

Posted on 17 June 2009 by Ed Frankovic

NHL Award Show in Vegas

Alexander Ovechkin has already won the Richard Trophy for the leading the NHL in goals (56) during the 2008-09 season and on Thursday night in Las Vegas the Great #8 will seek to add the Hart Trophy (NHL MVP) and Pearson Award (NHL’s most outstanding player as voted by fellow members of the NHL Players Association) to his trophy collection. I’m not in Vegas to wager on this but my money is on Ovechkin to capture both awards over Evgeni Malkin of Pittsburgh and Pavel Datsyuk of Detroit.

Mike Green, who told the Washington Post and Washington Times yesterday that he was suffering from an undisclosed illness in addition to shoulder trouble in the playoffs and that he would take better care of himself next season, is up for the Norris Trophy against Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit and Zdeno Chara of Boston. Green had an incredible regular season scoring 31 goals and adding 42 assists in just 68 games plus he broke the NHL consecutive game goal scoring streak by defensemen with tallies in eight straight contests. My money is on Chara to win this one ever so closely over Green. By the way, if you follow my blogs then you know that “the mysterious illness” Green likely suffered from was mononucleosis as reported by Bruce Boudreau on TSN earlier in the month (you can read that blog here).

Also, for those interested in watching the award show with a bunch of Caps fans, my fellow bloggers and all around good guys John Press (Japers Rink) and Greg Wyshynski (Yahoo’s Puck Daddy) are hosting a party at Bailey’s Pub and Grill in Ballston Mall. For info on it click here. It sounds like it will be a great time and these guys know hockey and are both very personable.

Caps Re-Sign Quintin Laing

The Capitals re-signed penalty killing and shot blocking specialist Quintin Laing to a one-year contract today. It is a two-way contract in that Laing’s pay is based on whether he is up with Washington or down with Hershey in the AHL. Here is the press release from the Caps great PR staff:

The Washington Capitals have re-signed left wing Quintin Laing to a one-year contract, vice president and general manager George McPhee announced today. In keeping with club policy, terms of the deal were not disclosed.

Laing, 30, played one game for Washington last season. He was recalled by the Caps from the Hershey Bears of the American Hockey League on March 19 and played the entire game (10:19) at Tampa Bay despite suffering a torn spleen on his second shift in the first period. Laing ended the game with a +1 rating.

The 6’2”, 210-pound native of Rosetown, Saskatchewan, spent most of the season with the Calder Cup champion Bears. He tallied 25 points (9g-16a) in 55 regular-season games before his recall. Laing missed more than two months with his spleen injury, but he returned to the Bears during the Calder Cup playoffs and had two goals and two assists in nine games.

Laing was drafted by Detroit in the fourth round of the 1997 NHL Entry Draft, 102nd overall. He has played in 43 career NHL games (40 with Washington and three with Chicago) and has one goal and six assists. He was signed by Washington as a free agent on July 18, 2006.

Caps Re-Runs Next Week

Want something good to watch on television next week? I suggest you turn into Comcast to catch the replays of 5 Caps classic games from this past season. You can see Alexander the Great rally Washington over the Rangers in Madison Square Garden in December, then see the Great #8 score his goal of the year against Montreal in February, next catch games 5 and 7 of the Caps-Rangers series, and close it out with the Caps Game 6 win over the Penguins in overtime. Here is the lineup courtesy of the Caps PR department’s blog, Welcome to the Show (click here):

The below games air during Caps Week, June 22-27. All games begin at 7 p.m. following Geico SportsNite.

June 22, Capitals at Rangers: Biggest Comeback in Team History (12/23/08)

Alex Ovechkin and Shaone Morrisonn led the team to this incredible come-from-behind victory, the team’s first in Madison Square Garden in five years.

June 23, Canadiens at Capitals: Ovechkin Shines in Capitals Shootout Victory (2/18/09)

The Capitals took the shootout victory as Ovechkin tallied one of the most amazing goals of his career.

June 25, Rangers at Capitals: Game 5 of the First Round Series (4/24/2009)

Down 3-1 in the first round, Matt Bradley scored twice and Simeon Varlamov posted another shutout.

June 26, Rangers at Capitals: Game 7 of the First Round Series (4/28/2009)

With a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals on the line, Varlamov led the team to a Game 7 victory.

June 27, Capitals at Penguins: Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals (5/11/2009)

Facing elimination again this postseason, Dave Steckel led the team to overtime victory to force a Game 7.

If Comcast had televised Game 2 of the Penguins series instead of Versus Caps fans likely would have be getting the Great #8′s hat trick in which Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby complained to the referees about a “second wave” of hats coming down on the ice.

No, I’m still not happy about the Penguins Stanley Cup victory and apparently neither is Boudreau or several Caps according to this post. Ataboy Bruce!

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Hershey Bears Calder Cup Champions; Penguins win Stanley Cup (Updated)

Posted on 12 June 2009 by Ed Frankovic

The Hershey Bears are the Calder Cup Champions after knocking off the Manitoba Moose, 4-1, in game six of their series tonight in Winnipeg. Hershey blitzed Moose goalie Cory Schneider for three goals in the first period and never looked back. Rookie goalie Michal Neuvirth, who won the Jack A. Butterfield trophy for AHL playoff MVP, made 24 saves to get the win.  Andrew Gordon, Chris Bourque, Alexandre Giroux and Keith Aucoin scored for Hershey. Congrats to the Bears and the Washington Capitals organization!

Revenge is a dish best served cold if you are a Penguins fan tonight as Pittsburgh held off a furious Red Wings rally to win the Stanley Cup in exciting fashion, 2-1, to avenge last season’s Stanley Cup Finals loss to Detroit. Hockey fans will be watching the incredible Marc-Andre Fleury save on Nicklas Lidstrom with one second left for years to come. Evgeni Malkin was the Conn Smythe Award Winner for Playoff MVP but in my mind, the Pens aren’t anywhere without Sidney Crosby (who was injured in game 7 and barely played after that). Crosby carried this team in the first two rounds, especially against the Caps, and he goes against the opponents best defensive group every game while Malkin gets the second unit.

In Detroit tonight, defenseman Brad Stuart is wearing the goat horns for taking the first penalty (slashing Malkin), then giving the puck away that allowed Maxime Talbot to make it 1-0 Pens, and then pinching at the blue line to set up a two on one for Pittsburgh that they, of course, scored on (Talbot again). I’ve been saying this all playoffs and will say it again – the Penguins are about as good a team as I’ve ever seen at converting two on one breaks.

Btw, please check out my on air discussion with Nestor today in the WNST audio vault (http://wnst.net/wordpress/section/audio/) for my pre game thoughts on the NHL and AHL finals.

For Caps and Baltimore sports fans it was tough seeing Pittsburgh win another trophy but given that the Caps lost two contests in OT to the Pens before bowing out in 7 games should make you and the entire Caps organization realize that they are very close to their first ever Stanley Cup victory. With some salary cap room freeing up from the Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov departures (and hopefully a Michael Nylander release too), Caps GM George McPhee should finally have some cap space to make the moves he needs to put Washington over the top. There is lots of talent in this organization in the NHL, AHL, and ECHL (the Caps team down there, the South Carolina Stingrays, won the Championship as well).

The NHL Awards show is next week from Las Vegas (Alexander Ovechkin should win the Hart Trophy for MVP and Mike Green is up for the Norris Trophy (best defenseman)), followed by the NHL draft the week after in Montreal (June 26 on Versus), and then free agency begins on July 1 so the NHL off-season will start fast and furious.

Congrats again to Coach Bob Woods and the Hershey Bears on their championship!

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Birds and turds and Sunday musing…

Posted on 07 June 2009 by Nestor Aparicio

Where are my U.S. Soccer fans? Who was watching the game last night? If you’re among the many who would say, “What, there was a soccer game last night?” it’s time to awaken to World Cup season.

Yep, Uncle Sam’s boys played last night in apparent silence across America for the sports team that represents us to the World on the grandest stage every four years.

And last night’s was a qualifier, no less. On American soil, in Chicago at Soldier Field. And, in embarrassing fashion, the stadium looked more like Red Sox fans at Camden Yards as most of Honduras found its way to the Windy City.

They announced the crowd at 55,000-plus and it easily topped 35,000 Hondurans in the house on a gorgeous night there. The U.S. got behind early (again) but found a way to escape with a 2-1 victory all but guaranteeing their safe passage to South Africa next June for the World Cup.

Drew Forrester (who has forgotten more about soccer than I’ll ever know) has a full account of the game here…

As many of you know, I’m a bit of a dweeb for World Cup soccer and I attended the Germany “Copa Mundial” in 2006. It’s one of my favorite sports memories and was the experience of a lifetime as a sports fan.

So, if you’ve made it this far in my blog, please mark my birthday on your calendar this year. It’s October 14th and the U.S. is hosting Costa Rica at R.F.K. Stadium. I want to put a busload of American crazies together for a big night in D.C. with Sam’s Army and the red, white and blue.

If you are interested, just drop me a note at Facebook or nasty@wnst.net

Oh, and if you’re wondering about the progress of World Cup Soccer Festival idea, I’ll have some updates coming soon…

*****

The Orioles are in a funk. Bats are cold. Arms are weary as the team has now given up 18 runs in two games in dreary Oakland and the sweep looks to be a’coming today unless Rich Hill can put together another masterpiece. The enthusiasm of Matt Wieters’ arrival could be overwhelmed by coming home with a five-game losing streak.

They had 10 hits last night and scored four runs. But the bullpen is taxed. They need seven outta Hill.

By the way: Is anyone going to the ballpark this week? I’m considering putting together a night of fans if anyone is game…

*****

It’s amazing how many Pittsburgh items I see around Baltimore. I went for a walk this morning and passed roughly 200 people. I saw a baby blue Pens Malkin jersey. I saw a Willie Stargell Pirates hat. And you can’t walk a block without a Steelers hat, shirt or bumper sticker plastered on the rear of someone’s car with Maryland plates.

Makes me wanna puke.

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Friday Night Hockey Blog: Bears News, Stanley Cup Analysis, and Other Hockey Stuff

Posted on 05 June 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Hershey Tied with Manitoba

The Hershey Bears lost a heartbreaker Tuesday night in Winnipeg to the Manitoba Moose giving up the winning goal with less than a minute to go in regulation. The Moose would add an empty netter to close out the Bears, 3-1, in game two to tie this best of seven series at one game a piece. The next three games are in Hershey on Saturday, Sunday, and Tuesday. If either the Bears or Moose don’t sweep the three contests then the series goes back to Winnipeg for games 6 and 7 (Friday, June 12th and Sunday, June 14th). I’ll be covering games 4 and 5 so please look for blogs after those contests with quotes from players, coaches, and possibly even Caps personnel (GM George McPhee and Coach Bruce Boudreau will be in attendance).

Meanwhile, some good news out of Hershey today as defenseman Karl Alzner participated fully in practice for the first time since he was injured in the second round of the playoffs against Wilkes-Barre Scranton (Penguins farm team). Tim Leone of the Patriot News has a good write-up on today’s practice at http://blog.pennlive.com/patriotnewssports/2009/06/defenseman_karl_alzner_concuss.html.

Forward Oskar Osala (Caps 4th round choice, 97th overall in 2006 NHL Entry Draft) has had a very good regular season with the Bears notching 23 goals, 14 assists and was +11 in 75 games and in the AHL playoffs he has continued to play well scoring six goals and four assists in 18 games while going +8. Osala had two goals in Hershey’s thrilling Calder Cup Finals game 1 victory, 5-4, in overtime. Check out yesterday’s chat transcript with the 6′ 4″ and 220 pound left winger at http://www.theahl.com/headlines/index.html?article_id=10177. Osala confirms, as I’ve mentioned in this blog before, that he needs to improve his skating if he is to consistently play in the NHL.

Also, John Walton, who is Senior Manager of Communications for the Bears and is the team’s radio play-by-play voice, posted a nice blog on the Calder Cup finals travel situation at http://johnwaltonhockey.blogspot.com/2009/06/thursday-thoughts-heading-to-game-3.html. Neither team seems to have gained any advantage over the other based on their respective long journey’s from Winnipeg this week.

For those who don’t know much about the Moose, they are the AHL farm team for the Vancouver Canucks. One of their most familiar NHL prospects is their goalie, Cory Schneider, who came up to the big club back in late November when superstar Roberto Luongo went down with a groin injury. Kelly Hrudey of Hockey Night in Canada Radio thinks that Schneider (Vancouver’s 1st round draft choice in 2004, 26th overall) is the real deal and will one day be a regular starter for an NHL team. This year Schneider went 28-10 in the regular season for Manitoba and is 13-4 in the current playoffs. The 23 year old net minder, who was 2-4-1 in eight appearances with the Canucks, is an American born in Massachusetts and he played at Boston College for three seasons. Their other top prospects are 19 year old center Cody Hodgson, who was a first round pick in the 2008 NHL Entry draft (10th overall), and 21 year old right wing Michael Grabner, who was also a first rounder in 2006 (14th overall).

The Moose are a much older bunch than the Bears with some familiar hockey names like 42 year old Mike Keane (current team captain who won Stanley Cups with Montreal, Colorado, and Dallas), 34 year old Jason Krog (22 goals in 220 games at the NHL level), 33 year old defenseman Nolan Baumgartner (Caps first round pick in 1994, 10th overall), and 27 year old forward Michal Ouellet (played for the Penguins, Lightning, and Canucks).

Winning this series will be a tough task for Hershey because of Manitoba’s experience.

Stanley Cup Finals Analysis

As I predicted in this blog on Monday night, the Penguins were victorious in game three and put themselves back in the series. Thursday night, Pittsburgh took things another step further by striking for three goals in five minutes in the second period to turn a 2-1 deficit into a 4-2 lead and eventual victory. The Pens power play is a blistering 4 for 9 in the Stanley Cup Finals while the Red Wings went 0 for 4 in game four and gave up a short handed tally to Jordan Staal that tied the game at two. That play seemed to be the turning point in the series as Staal badly undressed Wings defenseman Brian Rafalski en route to the goal that got Mellon arena rocking and gave the Pens some serious momentum.

I am not happy about saying this but right now Pittsburgh looks like the better team, especially with 2008-09 Hart Trophy finalist Pavel Datsyuk still out with a foot injury for Detroit. Chris Osgood, who was outstanding in goal in games one and two gave up some softies in the next two contests at the Igloo while his counterpart in net, Marc Andre-Fleury, turned in superb performances in Pittsburgh. Game five is Saturday night at 8pm on NBC.

Home ice has been a real advantage in this series because the host coach gets to put his players out on the ice second and that worked well for Wings coach Mike Babcock in Detroit when he was able to put top defensive pair Nicklas Lidstrom and Rafalksi out against Sidney Crosby. In Pittsburgh, head coach Dan Bylsma had the last change and he had the luxury of putting either Crosby or Evgeni Malkin’s line out against the players he desired. Malkin leads the NHL playoffs in scoring with 35 points but right now Crosby is my Conn Smythe winner for playoff MVP. His passing has been incredible and it seems every time he is involved in an odd man rush the Penguins score. He rivals Wayne Gretzky for scoring efficiency on two on one breaks, in my opinion.

I think the game five winner takes the Stanley Cup and if I was in Vegas would wager on the Pens at this point, despite my pre-series pick of Detroit in six games. Pittsburgh appears faster and they continue to do a very good job of protecting the front of their net, something I thought they might have more trouble with against the Wings.

Other Hockey News

The Colorado Avalanche have hired former Capital, Joe Sacco, to be their head coach next season. Sacco played three seasons (1999-2002) in DC.  The Avs, once one of annual members of the NHL elite, have been a mess the last several seasons. Ian Ceverny, who covers Colorado for the Denver Examiner, has an interesting read on this situation at http://www.examiner.com/x-7651-Denver-Page-One-Examiner~y2009m6d5-Avalanche-tab-Sacco-as-next-fall-guy. Still no word on whether soon to be 40 year old Joe Sakic will be back with the Avalanche in the fall.

Finally, I had mentioned in one of my blogs recently that an NHL scouting director told me that the best head coach available but not behind an NHL bench was Jim Playfair. Playfair, who is extremely loyal to Flames GM Darryl Sutter, has been named head coach of the Flames farm team, which just moved recently from Iowa to British Columbia. You can read the story at http://theahl.com/news/league/index.html?article_id=10179

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Caps, Bears, Red Wings, and Other Hockey Things

Posted on 02 June 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Caps News

For those who missed it, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was on TSN’s Off the Record with Michael Landsberg last week and the biggest news out of the interview, which ranged from the steroid allegations against the Caps to the overblown topic (and I thought dead) of Alexander Ovechkin’s 50th goal celebration in Tampa, was that Washington defenseman Mike Green is believed to have mononucleosis. Thus the so-called “flu” we heard as a reason for #52′s subpar play early in the playoffs is apparently more serious. And given that Green re-injured his shoulder in the Rangers series it is likely that the lack of energy he was feeling from that illness helped contribute to the shoulder situation. What is the bottom line in all of this? Green, who is only 23 years old, needs to take better care of himself in the future.

Another interesting thing in that interview was Landsberg mentioned that Viktor Kozlov and Sergei Fedorov were signed to play in the Russian Kontinental Hockey League next season, meaning they will no longer be Capitals. Boudreau didn’t contest the statement nor react to it indicating either the pair is definitely gone next season or he is just leaving that issue for General Manager George McPhee (who is in charge of team personnel) to handle.

Last bit of Caps news before moving on to discuss the Calder Cup, here is a link for the latest update on the steroid allegations that were made by Richard Thomas against Washington last week: http://sports.espn.go.com/nhl/news/story?id=4220886

Bears News

The Hershey Bears went into a sold out (15,003) arena in Winnipeg last Saturday night and stunned the Manitoba Moose, 5-4, in overtime in Game 1 of the Calder Cup Finals. Alexandre Giroux had a hat trick, including the game winner, and continues to show why he was the MVP of the American Hockey League (AHL) this past season. Game 2 is on Tuesday night at 830pm. You can watch it live on the internet via http://www.theahl.com/ for only $8. Games 3 through 5 are in Hershey on Saturday, Sunday, and then next Tuesday.

In game 1, the Bears took too many penalties giving the Moose 10 power plays to only 5 for Hershey. In addition, Manitoba’s Matt Pope had a penalty shot 14:14 into the second period with the Moose up 3-1, but Hershey rookie goalie Michael Neuvirth came up big with the save. Manitoba also had a two minute 5 on 3 power play in the final minutes of regulation but could not score. Neuvirth made 26 saves on 30 shots but two of the goals he gave up were on breakaways. Oskar Osala, who has NHL potential, had the other two goals for the Bears.

If you haven’t yet seen the incredibly exciting highlights from game 1 click here: http://ahl.neulion.com/team/console.jsp?catid=2&id=2242

Stanley Cup Finals Analysis

The Detroit Red Wings held serve at home this past weekend to take a 2-0 lead in the Stanley Cup Finals with game 3 scheduled for Tuesday night in Pittsburgh. Much was made, especially by Detroit, of the schedule change that moved the series up for NBC and had the two teams playing on back to back nights in prime time. Many people felt that favored the younger Penguins but the defending Stanley Cup Champions persevered.

Defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom returned from a lower body injury and helped to hold Penguins star Sidney Crosby scoreless through the first two games. #87 has been as good as you can be without scoring a point and he had five shots on net in the loss on Sunday night. Crosby has been all over the ice and Wings goalie Chris Osgood, who is a big reason why this series is in favor of Detroit so far, has robbed the superstar on several occasions. Crosby also set up winger Bill Guerin for some “layups” yet #13 has either hit the post or been denied by Osgood.

For some strange reason Penguins Coach Dan Bylsma decided to go back to dressing 12 forwards on Sunday night (he had been going with just 11 since early in the Caps series) inserting the supersoft Pascal Dupuis, who’s turnover to Marian Hossa led to Detroit’s go ahead goal, instead of giving extra ice time to Crosby and Evgeni Malkin (who has been flying around the rink as well). Dupuis tried to blame Hossa for breaking his stick on the play and wanted a penalty. I still haven’t seen where Hossa broke #9′s stick, in fact, it looked to me like Dupuis broke it on Hossa. Regardless of that, if Dupuis was stronger and had more heart he gets the puck out of the zone before his stick breaks. He belongs in the press box, if you ask me.

Crosby and Malkin seem to be the only guys who have really shown up for Pittsburgh and goalie Marc Andre-Fleury displayed in both games that he is definitely the weak link on that team. The goal he gave up off of the backboards in game 1 to Brad Stuart was horrible and the two goals he has given up to Justin Abdelkader (Red Wings 2nd round pick, 42nd overall in 2005 NHL Entry draft) were soft ones. Abdelkader only played two regular season games with Detroit this year as he spent most of his time in the AHL for Grand Rapids (Wings farm team). Detroit’s depth has been another reason they are up two games to none since they have had to play without Hart trophy finalist, Pavel Datsyuk, in those contests.

I still think the Penguins can get back in the series because they have dominated portions of the first two games. However, goaltending and experience (players and coaching) seem to be decidedly in Detroit’s favor. I do expect the Pens to win game three but if they don’t it is time to start the engraving process for the Red Wings and plan the Cup parade and parties.

Finally, a good piece here ( http://sports.yahoo.com/nhl/blog/puck_daddy/post/Malkin-Non-Suspension-The-embarrassment-continu?urn=nhl,167172 ) by Puck Daddy’s Greg Wyshynski on the instigator rule and the various ways it has been interpreted since enacted by the NHL head shed in New York.

NHL News

Wild news out of Montreal today as current Florida GM Jacques Martin, who had four more years left on his contract as Panthers GM, stepped down to become head coach of the Canadiens. I have criticized Martin’s poor managing ability in this blog before and you combine that with the word that the Panthers owners are looking to sell the team and you see why the former Ottawa Senators coach wants to get back behind the bench. Martin is a good coach but he has his work cut out for him in one of the toughest cities to work in pro sports.

Former NHL star Joe Nieuwendyk has been named GM of the Dallas Stars since owner Tom Hicks, as I mentioned in this blog before, is holding former co-GM’s Les Jackson and Brett Hull accountable for the Sean Avery debacle. Jackson is going back to scouting and pro player personnel while Hull is being moved to an executive VP position and out of personnel management. This seems like a smart move by a man who sources have told me doesn’t mind spending money but does not like to waste it (and that is exactly what happened in the Avery debacle).

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Stanley Cup Finals Preview

Posted on 28 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

Just like last season the NHL is getting the Detroit Red Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup Finals. This matchup should generate good television ratings for the league (Game 1 is on NBC on Saturday night and Game 2 is on Sunday night on NBC) and from a publicity standpoint, the only thing that might have gotten more viewers would be if the Washington Capitals had made into the finals simply because of the Alexander Ovechkin factor. The Great #8 is the most popular player in the league, and the best, in my opinion. But the NHL still has to be happy because Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin of the Penguins are the second and third most marketable players in the league right now because of their incredible skill level. Crosby and Malkin are outstanding and are right there with Ovechkin. Unfortunately for the Great #8 both of those guys are on the same team and Ovechkin was not able to beat those two guys alone in the second round in a series that will be talked about for several years, or at least until those two teams likely meet again in next year’s post-season.

Now on to the series and the big talk today was about the NHL schedule change. Thanks to ESPN’s Pierre LeBrun for the following on that topic:

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With just two full days to recharge before the Stanley Cup finals begin, the injury-riddled Detroit Red Wings were not hiding their feelings about the finals schedule being moved up.

“We’re not happy, I have to be honest,” Wings GM Ken Holland told ESPN.com from his office Thursday. “We’re disappointed that we haven’t had an extra day’s rest. It’s a double-whammy, the quick turnaround and back-to-back games [to open the finals]. We’re disappointed because we think when you win a series in five games or less, that you have earned an opportunity to have a few more days of rest.

“But at the same time, we understand and we’re not going to dwell on it. Because we don’t want to lose our focus with the job at hand. It is what it is. Let’s play.”

The NHL originally put out a release saying the finals would begin June 5 unless both conference finals were sweeps and then changed its mind mid-stream when it realized a nine-day break would be a killer for fan interest.

Starting the series with back-to-back games Saturday and Sunday and having three games in four nights, when you factor in Game 3 Tuesday in Pittsburgh, will be a tough challenge for the beat-up Red Wings.

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As I blogged last night, the schedule change definitely favors Pittsburgh due to some of the key injuries that the Red Wings currently are dealing with in Nicklas Lidstrom (lower body injury), Pavel Datsyuk (foot injury), Jonathan Ericsson (appendectomy), and Kris Draper (groin).

Anyways, time to start handicapping this match-up.

Red Wings offense vs. Penguins Defense

Pittsburgh’s defense has played extremely well in the post season and basically ever since Coach Dan Bylsma took over this team in February. Brooks Orpik, Hal Gill, and Rob Scuderi are very good in their own zone and can play physical. Gill is a little slow but he makes up for some of that with his size and reach. Sergei Gonchar and Kris Letang are the two primary offensive weapons from the blue line and both can skate and shoot the puck. Gonchar can be a defensive liability if pressured but so far he hasn’t been tested by the Eastern Conference opponents he’s faced. He still is not 100% as a result of the Ovechkin knee to knee hit he sustained in game four of that series. Mark Eaton and Phillipe Boucher round out the Pittsburgh defensive group as Bylsma has had alot of success dressing seven defenseman in the post season.

The Red Wings are loaded up front and this group controls the puck and attacks the net like no other team in the league. Pittsburgh has not had to face a group of forwards such as Tomas Holmstrom, Johan Franzen, Dan Cleary, and Jiri Hudler who aren’t afraid to go to the front of the net and do the dirty work. Cleary had 5 goals in the Western Conference Finals doing just that. Detroit also has great skill to go with those guys who crash the net in Henrik Zetterberg, Datsyuk, Marian Hossa (who played for the Penguins in a losing cause last season and was all over the ice in the final game of the Blackhawks series Wednesday night), Mikael Samuelsson, and Valteri Fillpula.

Penguins Offense vs. Red Wings Defense

Detroit is banged up on defense with Lidstrom hurting but word today is he will play in game one on Saturday night. #5 plays close to 30 minutes a night as does blue line partner Brian Rafalski. Both of those guys are great with the puck and are a threat to score at any time. Brad Stuart and Nicklas Kronwall are very good physical defensemen and Kronwall will lay out opposing forwards with big hits if they don’t keep their head up (just ask Chicago’s Martin Havlat). After that the troops get thin with Brett Lebda as the fifth defensemen and then Ericsson (if he is healthy enough). Rounding out the blue line are Derek Meech and the amazing 47 year old Chris Chelios, who played a good game five against the Hawks with both Lidstrom and Ericsson out of the lineup.

Because of Crosby and Malkin, the Penguins can throw two potent lines at an opposition forcing the other coaching staff to pick their poison with their best defensive pair. #87 is in the driver’s seat for the Conn Smythe Award (NHL’s playoff MVP) and ever since Chris Kunitz and Bill Guerin arrived at trade deadline time his game has gone to another level. Malkin has been flanked successfully by Ruslan Fedotenko (2004 Stanley Cup winner with Tampa) and Maxime Talbot. These three have been together since the Caps series and have been a force on the ice. The third line is another good one with Jordan Staal centering the pesky, hard working pair of Matt Cooke and Tyler Kennedy. Miroslav Satan and Craig Adams have been the 10th and 11th forwards and have chipped in nicely.

Goaltending

It is Detroit’s Chris Osgood (two Stanley Cups as a starter) vs. Marc-Andre Fleury (lost in last season’s Stanley Cup Finals). Osgood is the underrated veteran who has been there while Fleury has been fortunate to be protected by a good defense and system throughout the post season. Both of these goalies are about to face their TOUGHEST opponents of the playoffs.

Coaching

Dan Bylsma took over the Penguins in February after head coaching in the AHL in just his first season. At 38, he is the youngest head coach in the NHL. On the other hand, Mike Babcock has been coaching teams in the NHL for six seasons. The Penguins have won primarily on talent so far in these playoffs and solid coaching will be needed to beat the smart and efficient Red Wings. Their isn’t much comparison here and the edge goes big time to Detroit.

Intangibles

Pittsburgh has an edge as the less banged up team plus they are really hungry for the Cup after losing last season. Detroit has the experience of being there before plus home ice advantage.

Prediction

I have been on the Detroit bandwagon all year long and am not jumping off now! If Lidstrom is healthy then I think the Red Wings win this series in six games. If Lidstrom isn’t right then this thing goes seven games but I still see Detroit winning. I’m not saying Pittsburgh can’t win, because the way Crosby and Malkin are playing they can beat anyone, but I think their rookie coach hurts them so a team that knows how to score the ugly goals in Detroit, is too much for Pittsburgh to handle.

[Note: My prediction record in the 2009 Stanley Cup Playoffs is 11-3 (lost with just San Jose in the first round, Vancouver and Boston in the second round, and was successful in picking both Detroit and Pittsburgh in the Conference Finals).]

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NHL Moves Up Start of Stanley Cup Finals

Posted on 27 May 2009 by Ed Frankovic

With the Detroit Red Wings knocking off the Chicago Blackhawks, 2-1, in overtime on Wednesday night the NHL has shifted course and has decided to move up the start of the Stanley Cup Finals. The series, between the Wings and the Pittsburgh Penguins, was originally slated to begin on Friday, June 5th,  but it will now commence this Saturday, May 30th at 8pm on NBC. Game Two will be the next night (Sunday) on NBC as well, so the almighty TV dollar is ruling the scheduling of the rematch of last year’s Stanley Cup Finals (Detroit won 4-2). It is not very often that you see Stanley Cup Finals games played on consecutive nights. The series starts in Detroit for the first two games and then will shift to Pittsburgh on Tuesday, June 2nd and Thursday, June 4th (both games on Versus). Game 5 will be in Detroit on Saturday, June 6 on NBC, if necessary. Games 6 (Tuesday, June 9) and 7 (Friday, June 12) would also be televised on NBC, if necessary

The quicker start favors the Penguins because the Red Wings played games 4 and 5 of their series against Chicago without two very key players in defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom (the league’s best player at that position) and forward Pavel Datsyuk (2008-09 MVP finalist, up against Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin). Datsyuk reportedly has a bad foot and the Lidstrom injury is undisclosed. Sidney Crosby and Malkin have been fantastic for the Pens in these playoffs. However, the Penguins will be facing a very talented and experienced Detroit club that has players who go to the net consistently, something Pittsburgh has not had to really deal with in these playoffs (the Flyers were the only team they played that had multiple net crashers in their lineup). I’ll have my Stanley Cup Finals preview up on Thursday night.

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