Monday, February 28, 2011

Deadline Deeds

The Washington Capitals' general manager George McPhee faced what could be his toughest trade deadline of his career. How can he spark a struggling offense without giving up too much in return? While it remains to be seen how the newly acquired players will form into the collective, one thing is certain; McPhee certainly got the most bang for his buck.

Acquisition #1

Claimed LW Marco Sturm off waivers from Los Angeles Kings

Sturm '10-'11 Stats: 17 GP, 4g, 5a, 9p, +6, 1ppg; 32 years old, 6', 194 lbs.
Contract 1 yr $3.5 million UFA

(Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Sturm brings some offensive punch. Although coming off of an injury and only playing 17 games this season with the Kings, he has nine points in his last 17 games and can add some scoring power to the Caps sputtering power play. A smart pick up for McPhee as it costs nothing in way of trade bait as in player assets or draft picks. Sturm has one day of practice under his belt already and will start against the New York Islanders Tuesday night.

Acquisition #2

Caps trade prospect Jake Hauswirth and a 2011 3rd round pick to the Florida Panthers for D Dennis Wideman

Wideman '10-'11 Stats: 61 GP, 9g, 24a, 33p, -26, 8ppg, 11ppa, 75 h; 27 years old, 6', 196 lbs.
Contract 2 yr $3.9375 million UFA

With question marks on Tom Poti and Mike Green, McPhee felt he needed to step in and help his defensive core.

"Not knowing Tom [Poti's] status, I felt like geez, we may need to pick up another defensemen," McPhee said of the decision to trade for Wideman. "I thought maybe we could tough it out with what we have. But when Mike [Green] went down I thought it was really important to help this team now."

Wideman is another vet that can handle the puck well and quarterback the power play relieving some of the pressure on John Carlson, who has filled the void with injuries. Wideman's 19 power play points will inject some life into the struggling power play for the Caps. He also has another year on his contract.

"Wideman seems to be a real good fit," McPhee went on. "Because he is an offensive guy, he is good on the power play, he is a right hand shot. We were pleased we were able to do that deal."

The Capitals give up prospect Jake Hauswirth. Hauswirth impressed the Caps in his first development camp with the team, but then fizzled to make any head way in the organization eventually landing in the ECHL playing for the SC Stingrays once he signed as a free agent. The lack of depth in the Florida ranks may see him excel in the AHL level where the Caps' farm team is loaded with more than enough talent.

Wideman was obviously excited:

Acquisition #3

Caps trade C David Steckel and a 2011 second round pick to the New Jersey Devils for C Jason Arnott

Arnott '10-'11 Stats: 62 GP, 13g, 11a, 24p, -9, 2ppg, 3ppa; 36 year old, 6'5", 220 lbs.
Contract 1 year $4.5 million UFA

Jason Arnott's return to New Jersey hasn't gone smoothly. His numbers are down from a season ago. What he does bring is some Stanley Cup experience. McPhee is hoping that not only can Arnott hold down the center position on the second or third line, but also be a leader in the locker room. McPhee compares his trade with the one that saw Sergei Fedorov boost a team that was in need of some leadership and direction.

"There weren't many centers available," McPhee said as he talked about targeting Arnott. "He [Arnott] was one a lot of people wanted to have and he had a no trade clause... He was hoping to work it out with us."

The trade comes at a cost as McPhee had to give up David Steckel in return. Steckel's trade not only secures a centerman the Caps wanted, but also frees up some cap space to do it.

"We took a player out of our roster that we love," McPhee said of giving up Steckel in the trade. "[Steckel] is such a great guy, he has done really well for us here, he has become an NHL player, a solid NHL player. But we thought we had some depth there with Boyd Gordon and Jay Beagle."

Overall Grade: B

To pick up Marco Sturm, Dennis Wideman and  Jason Arnott for one roster player, a prospect and no first round picks is something to be admired. McPhee played his hand close to his chest and it payed off. The only reason it's not an A grade is because I am not sure how these players will blend into the Caps' collective. It is a wait and see sort of proposition.

McPhee bolsters his defense core with a player that can make an impact now. He gets two veteran forwards that have playoff experience and the Caps see a ray of light at the end of the regular season tunnel. If the newcomers can gain some chemistry with the rest of the team, this is going to be a tough Caps team to beat in the post season.

Capitals are five points from their division rivals the Tampa Bay Lighting.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Ovi Blasts One Over Pens

Capitals 1, Penguins 0
Game Summary

Some would call it boring, others would call it old time hockey. The Washington Capitals call it two points. Even though the Penguins were with out superstars Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby and were half way through a trade sending a solid defensemen to Dallas, the Caps didn't take many chances and played their tough defensive style to clip the Pens 1-0.

Alex Ovechkin scored the only goal of the game on a blaster that blew past everyone, including Penguin goaltender Marc-Andre Fluery as the Caps power play now has goals in the last two straight. Both power play tallies would end up game winners.

While there was only one goal scorer, the Penguins and Capitals played a spirited game that saw some good physical play. It was a shaky start for the Caps as they started the first having to deal with three penalty kills after some sloppy play. But a hit in the early stages of the game by Matt Cooke seemed to energize the Caps.

Matt Bradley took it upon himself to hit Cooke a few times and eventually was called for charging on a what looked to be a clean hit. Bradley would also fight a bit later in the period, not with Cooke but with a call up in Ryan Craig. The Caps rallied around that fight and eventually they would draw a tripping call late in the second period.

It looked as if the Caps' power play would once again struggle against one of the league's best penalty kills. But a break down in Penguins' coverage left an open Ovechkin at the point and his slapper was a laser over Fleury's shoulder for the game's only goal.

(Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
While it's never smart to sit back on a lead, the Caps' defense came through blocking a slew of shots to help Michal Neuvirth with his second straight shut-out against the Penguins. He would stop all 39 shots his way. Including 18 shots in the first and 14 shots in the third.

This is a big win for the Caps as they take a two point step closer to the lead in the Southeast Division. Now just a point behind the Lightning, the Caps still have to make up ground as Tampa has the games advantage. They also put some distance between them and Montreal, now five points ahead of them.

Caps end their 5 game road stretch with 6 points to show for it. All three wins the Caps secured were by just one goal. The two they lost were also by just a goal. The Caps will get some rest this week as they return home to face the Rangers on Friday night at the phone booth.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

PP Spudders, But Coughs Up GW Goal

Capitals 2, Sabres 1
Game Summary

It looked like the Capitals' power play was going to make the headlines for all the wrong reasons. But Mathieu Perreault sparked a late power play goal to lift the Caps over a team pressuring for a playoff spot, the Buffalo Sabres 2-1.

Perreault would only get a goal, but he figured in on both tallies. The first goal was one of opportunity as the dump in by Matt Hendricks took a crazy bounce off the boards to a waiting Perreault in front of the net. He shot it opposite side and beat Ryan Miller for the early lead.

What was to be Perreault's second goal was a result of some determination by Alex Ovechkin. A streaking Ovi weaved his way into the zone on the power play and let go a wicked snapper. The rebound went right to Perreault who threw it back at Miller. The puck apparently hit Marcus Johansson on the way in and the Caps would get the lead back for good.

While the Caps took the lead on the power play, it wasn't easy sailing when the Sabres practically gave the game to them in the first period. A slew of early penalties even had the Caps on a long 5 on 3 opportunity. The pp wasted opportunity after opportunity going 0 for 4. They had their shots, an almost open net for Nick Backstrom turned their fortunes around, but he couldn't get the shot high and Miller made the easy save.

Everything about the game the Caps did pretty good. They played solid 5 on 5 and the PK only allowed a goal against. There were good chances at even strength for the Caps as well. Even the checking line had a few good looks.

Semyon Varlamov looked pretty solid when he was called to make a save or two. He looked good in net and looking like the Varly of old where it is just plain tough to score on him. He would turn aside 28 shots including 11 in the third period. He would have some good control over his rebounds and looked square to the shooter.

Mike Green sits out for another game, but his return seems close. The Caps return Patrick McNeill to Hershey in hopes of making room for Green back in the line up.

Caps don't have much time to celebrate as they take on Pittsburgh Monday night.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Open Season On Trade Rumors

You know when the Washington Post's Capitals Insider is listing trade prospects for the upcoming NHL trade-deadline coming up on February 28th, rumors are going to start flying. Some border on the ridiculous, others might rise an eyebrow or two. For the most part I am going to stay away from posting links to where the most ridiculous ones come from. They at least get an A for effort. Salaries are based on

Player Rumors

Tomas Vokoun, G, Fla - I think if you ask any coach if they are at all happy with their goaltending going into the playoffs there would be that one ping of "eh?" in the back of their brain. In fact, true of most tournaments, the hottest goaltender is usually what carries a team through the toughest battles. Right now for the Caps, goaltending is a concern. No clear number one goaltender has stepped forward between Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. But Vokoun carries a $6.3 million albatross contract with him. He might be a rental for some playoff team but I doubt it will be the Caps.

Jaroslav Halak, G, StL - Well, if you can't beat 'em... I don't think the Blues are willing to part a player they signed to a 4 year contract. Even though you could think of him as a steal at $2.75 million, his contract ramps to $4.5 in the final year.

Danius Zubrus, F, NJ - It is interesting to say the least. Reunite Alex Ovechkin with a big strong forward he started his career with. An experienced Ovi with Zubrus who seems to be solid but nothing sparky for the Devils. Zubrus still has a couple of years on his contract at $3.4 million. Sometimes there are reasons GMs part with players like that, and I think George McPhee had his reasons.

Jason Arnott, F, NJ - Arnott is an interesting player because he is a proven leader and his experiences of winning Cups on two different teams is very invaluable. But I look down the bench at Mike Knuble that has been here, similar player. Does he fill the role any differently than Knuble does? I guess I can't really answer that question ('cause I'm not a gm). But if I had the chance to take Arnott, I would.

Scott Gomez, F, Mtl - Gomez may have fallen out of favor in Montreal with the fans, but I don't think a straight up Semin for Gomez makes any kind of sense. Gomez has 3 years still left on his contract and yes the price does drop eventually to below $3 million. But as you can see, it is for good reason.

Alexei Kovalev, F, Ott - This 37 year old Semin-type play maker might make for a good spark to the lagging Caps' offense. But just like Semin, he can often disappear like magic for games on end. His $5 million contract would be a heavy load to bear.

Tomas Kaberle, D, Tor - Kaberle is a solid defenseman with some separation issues. He won't waive his trade clause for just anybody and gm Brian Burke is trying to get the most for him too. The rumors today went into high gear (and he could have been traded in the span of writing this post). But the Caps would have to give up some talent in return. McPhee doesn't need him that badly.

Marty Reasoner, F, Fla - If the Caps are looking for a second line center, Reasoner could anchor a second line in the NHL. I doubt if he will add much to scoring, but if he stays above 50% on faceoffs a game, plays solid two way (score-a-goal or stop-a-goal a game) he could bring some stability to the Caps top two lines. But there is a little history there that McPhee wouldn't want to open.

The Outrageous: Ilya Kovalchuk (you want that contract on your team?), Patrick Marleau (I think the sharks need him), one of the Sedins (uh, no), Sean Avery (seriously?), Matt Cooke (WTF?), Richard Zednik (he went home), Peter Bondra (I throw that one in as a joke, there is still some guy from MD who says he can play).

The Rumor "What the Caps need most is..."
  • A defenseman - I had this conversation on Twitter with Japer's Rink yesterday about the need for another defenseman. I think we were both saying the same thing, just in different ways. What I was aiming for in my statement that the Caps really don't need another big time D man to put the Caps in a cap crunch.
  • Second-line center - Ding, ding, ding. Winner. The Caps need to find someone who can anchor that second line. Bringing stability to it would encompass all three of the attributes I spouted off under my thoughts on Reasoner. Good on the face off dot, can score a goal from time to time and can hustle back to stop one every now and then too. 
  • Goaltender - It might be true, but I have a feeling that McPhee is content to let the kids duel it out to the bitter end. Maybe from the ashes something can by salvaged.
  • Change in coaching - A slight change in the way the system should be coached, sure. Axing Bruce Boudreau would just make the players sad. Aww.
  • Change in gm - Let's see, you have a slew of prospects bottle-necked at the AHL level, a team that despite losing a good chunk of their offensive production still finding ways to win and a great hair do. I think McPhee gets to keep his job for the time being.
Others you might have heard?

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Is Philly Outpricing The Market?

The Philadelphia Flyers made a trade in what some think is way to much to acquire a solid third line player. The Toronto Maple Leafs traded Kris Versteeg to Philly for a first round and third round picks in next year's draft. Considering a first rounder has only been traded once times in the past two years at the trade deadline.

It's not like the Flyers need the extra help. They are playing the best hockey of late and are atop the Eastern Conference standings (77 pts) with only the Pittsburgh Penguins (74 pts) and Tampa Bay (73 pts.) within reach to overtake Philly. It could be a wise move to start filling the ranks as they plan a long run into the playoffs and getting the best players to jump in when injuries arise could be key. But when general managers dangle a first round pick they do not do it lightly.

Not that I think Philadelphia has done it intentionally, but they could be making other gm's look at the market and say, if it is going to take a first rounder to get a third line player what would it cost to get some help in lines one and two?

What does this mean for Washington? The Capitals may still be looking for a solid, two-way, second line centerman and maybe some better goaltending support (whether that means a back up with playoff experience of late or a new number one goaltender). It might mean saying good bye to what the Caps have built in Hershey in prospects.

Unlike Philly, the Caps have a mix of both draft picks to offer as well as prospect players. But general manager George McPhee is awfully stingy with both. As he has said before, he trust the players he knows. It is unlikely that McPhee would give up much just for a rental.

It will be interesting to see where McPhee takes his team next, to say the least.

Monday, February 14, 2011

McPhee Faces Most Important Trade Deadline Of His Career

The fate of the Washington Capitals, head coach Bruce Boudreau and even general manager George McPhee could change drastically. As the Caps talk of a trade that could spark the team's sudden lack of offense could be found in getting just the play for the job. But February 28th is fast approaching, the NHL's trade deadline. And McPhee could put his team in a position for a run at the Cup, or their struggles continue.

Last season, McPhee found it important to stock his shelves with players that can step in as injuries occur. It is a forward thinking proposition if the team expects to be in the playoffs for the long run. But that plan did really come to fruition. A quick exit in the first round after taking the league by storm in the regular season was nothing short of a disappointment.

Unlike last season, the Caps need production now out of who ever they might get. If the Caps continue to slip in the standings. They are currently 5 points behind the Lightning, with the Canadiens, Rangers and Hurricanes pressing to leap frog the Caps to sit a little more pretty in the standings.

Let's take an honest look at this season though. If the Capitals had this kind of season before the offensive juggernaut of the '09-'10 team, would we still be as disappointed in how this team is producing? Maybe on the numbers Nick Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin are putting up. But this team is a completely different team than a year ago.

The defensive core has at leas 600 less games played before they acquired Scott Hannan from Colorado. Include a pair of rookie goaltenders that the Capitals feel they have to play tougher defense in front of and a lack luster power play from last season puts the Caps in unfamiliar waters.

If the Caps can't turn around their current situation and the struggles continue into another disappointing early exit in the playoffs, owner Ted Leonsis has some tough decisions to make. Should he stick with McPhee and make a coaching change? Or make changes from the top down? Since the purchase of the Washington Wizards, Uncle Ted has his attentions split and maybe thinking of making those steep changes in what was a sure thing a season ago.

But to put myself in the shoes of McPhee, Boudreau or even Ted Leonsis is a stretch. Like McPhee has said before, if I really knew anything about hockey I would be in the business. But as an outside entity that has cover this team for the last five years, I see the writing on the wall. This will be a very important trade deadline for this team. It can be a turning point for either good or bad.

Sunday, February 06, 2011

Super Sunday

Capitals 3, Penguins 0
Game Summary

(Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
On Super Bowl Sunday, the Caps stole the early thunder from Pittsburgh. Green Bay would finish the job later in the day. The Capitals follow up their perfect game on Friday against Tampa Bay with a 3-0 stone wall of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Brooks Laich scores for the second straight game. His first period goal would stand as the game winner. Marcus Johansson had a beauty of a back hand that fluttered past Marc-Andre Fleury. Mike Knuble would put the icing on the cake with the empty netter.

Two players that did not score a goal stood out as the best players in the game. Matt Hendricks and Alex Ovechkin. Hendricks continues to impress as a Capital. This guy does a little bit of everything, add an offensive threat, play solid defensively as he dives to block shots, and is not shy of dropping the gloves. He would even defer on the empty net shot to pass it to the Caps' elder Knuble. Respect your elders.

Ovechkin was a monster and did everything in this game except get on the scoresheet. His outside threat seemed to keep the Penguins off kilter and it sparked the later lines to match the intensity he had. He brought his hitting machine, often taking the physical route against the Pens' defense. Ovi had three shots, three hits, one blocked shot and a take away.

It would be the Capitals defense that would shine in the shut out of the Penguins. With out Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin, the Penguins looked to use their speed to try and catch the Caps' defense flat footed. But the Capitals kept the play to the outside, stepped into shooting lanes (blocking 18 shots), and moving the puck effectively out of the zone.

On the other end, the Caps funneled shots to the net and it payed off. The first goal of the game started with a keep in by John Erskine, then some good sustained pressure in the Pens' zone. Mathieu Perreault would have a sneaky take away and find Erskine who shot it on net. The puck got through to Fleury and the rebound was swept under the Pens' goaltender by a charging Laich.

It looked like it was going to be a physical game, but not a dirty one. But the Caps would get into a little penalty trouble later in the second period when Matt Hendricks was shoved into Fleury and the officials called him for goaltender interference. The penalty would wash out a Johansson goal, but he would make it up later.

(Photo by Greg Fiume/Getty Images)
A testament to the Caps' penalty kill, they have not been allowed a power play goal by the Pittsburgh Penguins this season. When the Caps turned the puck up ice with David Steckel and Johansson cutting into the zone short-handed, it looked as if the play would fizzle as Johansson drew in two defenders when he crossed the blue line. But a nifty backhander caught the far post over Fluery's right blocker.

The Capitals did not seem satisfied with that score. They kept the offensive pressure up while keeping the shots down for Neuvirth. The Penguins could only manage 7 shots in the final period.

The win did not come with out cost. Mike Green took a high slapper from Brooks Orpik in the right ear in the fading seconds of the first period. He was cut badly and would leave the game. Knuble would be cut from an errant high stick. He would finish the rest of the game with a nasty gash on his cheek and nose. Even though he was a bloody mess, he did manage the goal on the empty net from the red line.

Ovechkin was caught with a knee on knee hit by Matt Cooke. Cooke argued that Ovi made the move to avoid the hit, but it looked like he was going to hit Ovechkin with whatever body part he could on him.

The Capitals' power play did not convert. They played with some familiar swagger and they did get their chances. Playing one of the league's best penalty kills, the power play did its job which was gain some momentum and keep the other team on their heels. They often found chances after the power play had ended, a sign they were keeping the pressure on Pittsburgh.

Now the Caps face a slew of Western Conference teams as their next two foes at the phone booth will be San Jose on Tuesday and Los Angeles on Saturday. Then they head out on their western swing playing their first three games of a five game road trip against Phoenix, Anaheim and see the Sharks again. Their five game road trip will end with a back to back game with Buffalo and Pittsburgh.

Caps Notes:
  • The Capitals will stay three points behind Tampa Bay in the Southeast Division as they beat the St. Louis Blues today in overtime. 
  • Alex Semin was rumored to be in the line up on Friday against the Lightning but he didn't make the trip to Florida. He would not dress for the game against Pittsburgh.
  • Neuvirth was given the game's first star followed by Laich with the second and Johansson with the third star.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Division Foe Brings Out Caps' Best

Capitals 5, Lightning 2
Game Summary

The Tampa Bay Lightning are a tough team to beat at home with a 17-5-2 record at St. Pete Times Forum. Winners of six straight going into this divisional battle with the Capitals, the Bolts were looking to put some distance between the two. But Nick Backstrom had other plans as his two goals propel the Caps to a solid win on enemy ice, 5-2.

In a game that could play into post season positioning at the end of the year, the Caps' top line came to life. Backstrom had a four point night with a pair of goals (13, 14) and a pair of assists (35, 36). Alex Ovechkin was no slouch either scoring the game winning goal on the power play (20) and added up 3 assists (33, 34, 35) to boot for a 4 point night for himself. Brooks Laich (10) and an empty netter by Jason Chimera (8) rounded out the scoring for the Caps.

From the onset, this was going to be a rough battle as both teams brought the physicality to open the game. The first four penalties the Lightning took were a pair of roughing calls followed by a pair of fighting majors. Matt Hendricks played another physical game getting into a fight with Bolt bad boy Steve Downie. Matt Bradley would also get into the fighting action with a tussle with Adam Hall.

The Lightning strategy was to play "hands-off" hockey and clog the neutral zone. It was a strategy that played well against the Capitals in their last two wins against Washington. But the Caps were prepared just to lay back and take their time, not forcing the play up ice just turn the puck over. It would result in quite a few moments when the Caps' defense were holding the puck in their zone and letting the clock burn out as the Lightning sat back.

When the Caps were able to break the neutral zone they made the most of their opportunities by getting quick shots to the net and funneling all the play there. The result was some golden chances off of rebounds and the Caps were able to clean up on the sloppy seconds.

Down by one, the Caps strategy would work as Mike Green held the puck in the zone making a nifty deke to the inside and shot the puck in on Dwayne Roloson. The Bolt goaltender would make the first save, but both Ovechkin and Backstrom were there for the rebound. It looked as if Ovi had scored the goal, but on video review, they gave the goal to Backstrom. It is only his 13th goal of the season.

The Caps would take the lead on the same strategy getting the puck to the net. After some board work, Mathieu Perreault and Jay Beagle would work the puck to the front of the net. Laich would get the biscuit in the slot and make a sweet backhander count, scoring top shelf over Roloson's shoulder.

Ovechkin would get his 20th goal on the power play simply by picking his spot and letting go a wicked snap shot over Roloson's blocker shoulder. The power play tally would stand as the eventual game winner and put the Caps up 3-1.

It wasn't all roses as the Capitals penalty kill, which has been a shade better than good, was tested one too many times against a good power play team in Tampa. They would let a goal in but also doused another three extra man attempts for Tampa. The Lightning would score in the waning moments of the second period to cut into the Capitals' lead 3-2 and seemed to have momentum go their way.

But some smart goaltending by Semyon Varlamov kept the Bolts at bay. He would stop 23 shots and post a .920 save average. After he made a spectacular pad save, the Caps broke the action the other way and Ovechkin just had to put the puck on net. Roloson made the first save, but the puck bounced to the open slot and Backstrom was there to score his second goal of the night and to add some insurance with over seven minutes to play in the third period.

Add a Jason Chimera goal to the equation (after Ovechkin gave up the goal for his third assist on the night) and the Capitals play a full game. It wasn't perfect at times, but they were able to rebound from an early soft goal and stifle the Bolts explosive offense. It helped the top line finally got some points on the board as well.

If the Caps are looking to take back the Southeast Division lead, they need to play more like they did tonight. They need to play with passion, a physical edge, discipline and out work their opponents. The goals the Caps scored weren't results of pretty plays or cute passes, but more from just getting the puck to the net and jumping on loose pucks.

This sets up another marquee match-up with the Pittsburgh Penguins on national television. The NBC broadcast will once again shine a light on the league's biggest rivalries. The Caps are looking to keep their winning ways going but will most likely play a Penguin team minus Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin on Super Bowl Sunday.

Caps Notes:
  • Alex Semin was slated to return to the lineup for tonight's tilt with the Lightning, but instead stayed in D.C. still nursing a groin injury. 
  • Chimera made a return to the top line next to Backstrom and Ovechkin. The strategy seemed to work as Chim's speed opened some space for both of his linemates. He would finish with a goal and an assist and a plus 2.
  • The Capitals ended their 139 minute, 31 second stretch without a goal against Tampa Bay Lightning. They have been shut out in the last two meetings. In fact three of the last five games Tampa and Washington have played included a shut-out (two by the Lightning, one by the Caps).
  • Backstrom would get the game's first star of the night, Ovechkin the second.