A Game that Actually Lived Up to the Hype

Posted by Dave Nichols | Friday, December 24, 2010 | , , , | 1 comments »

“You talk about the hype and the buildup and the rivalry, and the puck drops and it’s exactly what the buildup is. Sometimes these are overbuilt but this was a playoff type of game and the building [was] rocking.” -- Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma


Very rarely do big events in sports -- or in real life for that matter -- actually live up to all the hype. 

With all the associated hype and expectation surrounding the rivalry between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, from Thursday night's prelude to HBO's revealing 24/7 program to the Winter Classic on New Year's Day, it would have been easy for this game to disappoint -- to not live up to the expectations.

But it did.  And so much more.

The only disappointment was in the final score if you were wearing red.

The final will read 3-2 Penguins after a seven-round shootout, but the score doesn't even begin to tell the story.

This was an epic battle of wills:  special teams engaged all night long, big hits doled out from the very first shift in the game through overtime, ridiculous goaltending on both sides, players fighting through -- and some succumbing to -- pain and injury.

It had a blocked penalty shot, and even had a puck pulled off the goal line in overtime, hidden in a catching glove, that may have actually been over the line -- if you could see through leather.

And of course, 60 minutes wouldn't be enough to decide it.  No, not even 65 minutes would suffice.  This game had to go to the shootout, the least-satisfying ending for an instant regular season classic.

The superstars made their presence known.  Alex Ovechkin laid out countryman Evgeni Malkin on the first shift of the game, assisted on Mike Green's five-on-three power play goal, and scored as the first skater in the shootout.  Sidney Crosby perfectly deflected a Kris Letang slapshot past Michael Neuvirth for Pittsburgh's first goal and assisted on Chris Kunitz' go-ahead marker in the third period.

The Caps were awarded five of the game's first six power plays and finally scored on the final one.  The Penguins got the last four and were shut out on all five that they had on the night.

The tying goal came with the Capitals killing the final of three third period calls, with Brooks Laich making a tremendous play on the puck, then sliding it over to venerable veteran Mike Knuble who backhanded it through the five-hole.

Both goalies were their team's best player.  Neuvirth stopped 25 of 27 shots faced.  His counterpart, Marc-Andre Fleury, was even better, saving 32 of 34 shots.  Fleury's covering of Green's attempt mid-way through overtime was probably the play of the game.

The Verizon Center faithful were in full voice, and from the moment of player introductions, the place certainly had a playoff vibe.  And the players rose to the occasion.  It was a tense, tight-checking dramatic game that ultimately counted no more in the standings than any other -- including next Saturday's Winter Classic -- but it certainly delivered all that was asked of it, and more.

All the build-up, anticipation and hype for the New Year's Day game will be tough to match.  But the Caps and Pens proved Thursday night they are up to the task.  Hockey fans will be the beneficiaries.

And HBO got themselves a hell of a program for next Wednesday's episode of 24/7.

POST GAME QUOTES

Sidney Crosby, on the effect of the Winter Classic on the rivalry:  “I think it brings out the best in everyone so that’s a good thing and that’s how it should be… It seems like both teams bring out the best in one another. They’re very competitive and it’s developed into a rivalry and every year it seems like it’s getting bigger and bigger with history in the playoffs and games like this every year . It’s hard for it to not gain intensity.”

Mike Green, on the effort from the Capitals:  “I thought we played well. We haven’t been playing 60-minutes for a while here, and I thought we did that. We competed, we never gave up, and when we needed a goal, we found a way to get it and come back. That just goes to show the character.”

Mike Green, on losing in a shootout:  "It's tough to lose that way.  Especially after the game we had and how we battled back.  It's tough.  We'll get over it."

Green, whether he thought he beat Fleury in overtime:  "100 percent.  I won't be able to sleep."

Green, on the atmosphere:  "It felt like a playoff game, again.  I think that's why our spirit was up, our energy was up.  The fans bring a lot of energy and it [helps] us to play better.  I wish it was like that every night."

Alex Ovechkin, praising the level of play from both sides:  “I think we played great. I think all four lines did great job. We don’t make some mistakes, finish checks, getting [pucks] deep, we have lots of shots. I know Fleury played unbelievable today. They are great players, [when] they have a chance they use it. We have to use our chances.”

Mike Knuble, on the atmosphere:  "Players just kinda played it like a normal, 82-game schedule.  I think the crowd wanted to see a Game Seven.  But the players, we played a pretty even game."

Knuble, whether the result was a disappointment:  "It was a good hockey game, went to a shootout.  I guess that what it was tonight, a close game."

Bruce Boudreau, on the result itself:  "I think it was two really good teams going at it and we lost the skills competition."

Boudreau, on Green:  "I thought it was his best game in a long time.  He played good defensively and yet he jumped into the play and made things happen offensively.  You could see his reaction when he scored, like the weight of the world came off his shoulders and he looked like a different guy after that."

GAME NOTES

D Tom Poti left the game after just five shifts, 3:34 of ice time.  He took a stick to the head or face, was briefly attended to on the bench, and retreated to the trainers room.  Boudreau listed him as day-to-day, but also confessed to not knowing how bad Poti was injured.

The Caps were credited with more hits on the scoresheet, but it seemed like the Penguins were really taking the body, especially early and especially against Mike Green.  Green was targeted on several occasions, and took a big hit early along the boards that left him a bit stunned.  Green was credited with eight hits on the night, leading the Capitals.

Ovechkin has five shots on goal with another five blocked and three missed.  He was credited with five total hits.

Mathieu Perreault took two minor penalties in the third period, one for holding Kris Letang as he was falling to the ice, another for hooking at center ice.

Defenseman Mike Green scored his sixth goal of the season on the power play in the second period. Green, who ended a 14-game goalless drought, has scored four of his six goals this season on the man advantage. Green registered a season-high 34:03 of ice time, eight hits, six shots and five blocked shots.

AND WE'LL LEAVE YOU WITH THIS

Photo D.Nichols/Caps News Network

Big Game

Posted by Dave Nichols | Thursday, December 23, 2010 | , , , | 0 comments »

Tonight's regular season matchup between the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins is a big deal.  The players and coaches know how important it is to them in the standings, and as a preview for the Winter Classic and hopefully the Stanley Cup playoffs, but only have a vague idea what the rivalry means to their fans.

A professional sports team means very little without a passionate and knowledgeable fan base.  The owners and executives are businessmen, the coaches (especially in hockey) are little more than temporary employees; the players mercenaries, most more concerned about keeping their roster spot than how they fit into a 40-year history.

They all say the proper things about the rivalry and its importance to the fans, but you can feel the disconnect.  They think -- and from their perspective, probably rightly so -- it's all about them, this version of the Washington Capitals.

None are from the area they represent.  They have very little idea of the history behind the franchise -- what makes this "organization" a team.

Sure, they play for themselves and each other in that sense of team, but it's on a very micro level.  That's their team: the players they see every day in the locker room, the brother-in-arms that they have to answer to -- or for -- when effort lacks, and the guys they celebrate their successes with.

But for the fans, the team is an extension of civic pride.  They were part of that team long before the current regime, and will still be when this one finally exhausts it's useful purpose.

Caps fans have a reputation for being bandwagoneers and Johnny-come-latelys, and some of that is earned. This franchise was in a lot of trouble for a long time, as hard to root for as some of the other franchises this city has to offer right now.  And the Capitals didn't have the benefit of playing a sport that came second nature to the geographic region.

With all the other entertainment options available, the Capitals -- and hockey in general -- had to go a long way to get to the top of the pecking order in this city.

Some of us have been at this since 1974, but in the grand scheme of things, whether you remember Greg Joly or Gaetan Duschene or not, the important thing is that you're rockin' the red for The Great 8 and John Carlson now.  All Caps fans wear their hearts on their sleeves.

Penguins fans are no less passionate about their team, but the popular opinion out of Steel City is that the Caps just aren't much of a rival, and that Caps fans dwell too much on the Penguins.  Maybe that's the case.  Rivals rip your heart out, and most of it has been one-sided in this relationship.

They have what we want:  The Stanley Cup. League-wide respect.  To be taken seriously as a hockey town.

And we also know that we have to go through them to get it.

But it seems to me Pens fans spend a lot of time and effort talking about how little time and effort they spend on the Caps.

So Caps fans, don't let ANYBODY tell you how to feel or how to cheer for your team.  This is your team, whether you've been there from the beginning or just got your first Ovi t-shirt jersey last week.

It's just two points.  But it's also so much more.

"It's exciting to be part of a team that has a genuine hatred of somebody." Andrew Gordon, on the Caps-Pens rivalry.

Mid-way through the third period in last night's undressing of New Jersey, many of the Verizon Center faithful joined in a chorus not unfamiliar in these parts. 

Reminiscent of old RFK Stadium during the Washington NFL team's hey-day, when fans were still proud of that team and taunted their upcoming rival with chants of "WE WANT DALLAS!", some Washington Capitals fans picked up the time-honored tradition and started chanting "WE WANT PITTSBURGH!"

You'll have to forgive that section of the fan base right now.  After suffering along with the team on an eight-game losing streak, the 5-1 win over the previously vaunted, now struggling Devils -- in combination with a 3-2 road win over Ottawa Sunday night -- must have left them practically giddy.

It's certainly premature to be taunting one of the league's best teams considering the events of the past three weeks.  But with all the attention Thursday's game is getting as a prelude to the Winter Classic game on New Year's Day and the modest two-game win streak, you have to give it to folks for wanting to stir the pot with the Penguins coming to town.

Since last night's game was carried by Versus Network, news of course travelled quickly to Western PA.  And responses ranged from measured and appropriate to foul-mouthed from that section of the interwebs.

But how, exactly, do the players and coaches see this rivalry?

Many of the players on the Capitals were barely skating the first time this franchise lost to the Penguins in the playoffs (waaay back in 1991), and most were blissfully unaware as repeated attempts to beat the Pens in the second season fell unsuccessful.

They all know how important it is to them personally, their captains, their organizations, and the league.  But do they really have a sense of how important even a seemingly innocent regular season game is in the long-term rivalry for fans of the Capitals, repeatedly disappointed at the hands of Mario Lemieux, Rick Tocchet, Ron Francis, Sidney Crosby, et al?

Caps fans, whether they like to admit it or not, have an inferiority complex when it comes to the Penguins.  And rightfully so.  They have what all Caps fans want.  The Stanley Cup.  League-wide respect.  To be taken seriously as a hockey town.

Those demons won't be exorcised until the Caps bring home a Cup.  And they will have to go through Pittsburgh to do it.

Here's a sampling of the locker room today on the rivalry with the Penguins and what it means to the coaches and players and their interpretation of what it means to the fans.

John Carlson:  "I think that anytime there's a rivalry it's added intensity for the fans.  We come to work everyday and do the same things everyday and the games change and we have to show up and battle whatever team it is -- rivalry or not.  But there's a lot more intensity.  You can feel it in the building sometimes when the fans are really really into it.  They're always great, but you'll see on Thursday everyone's really enjoying it, not just us."

"Our fans expect the best from us and they know the rivalry and want us to beat [the Penguins] just as much as we want to beat them, so they're right behind us."

Andrew Gordon:  "With the teams in proximity like this, I know that there's been the rivalry...the two areas don't really like each other regardless what sport you're playing.  When Sidney was drafted there and Ovi here, it just ratcheted it up that much more. It's exciting to be part of a team that has a genuine hatred of somebody --in Hershey we have that same thing with Wilkes-Barre -- I remember the first day I walked into that dressing room it was just a known fact that we do not like losing to that team and it's sort of bred into you. Now everyone comes into this organization feels the same way [about the Penguins] so when you see Pittsburgh on the schedule you get amped up.  You know you're going to play against a team that's at their best cause they want to beat you just as badly as you want to beat them."

Mike Knuble:  "[Pittsburgh's] still the top team in the conference and to do well you have to play well against them.  They've been on an incredible run, and we've been on an incredible run in the other direction.  It should be a great hockey game.  They're a great team and should be a good measuring stick for us to see if what we're doing is really in the right direction."

Matt Hendricks:  "Being at home, on our rink, with our fans, I think it's gonna be a great night for hockey.  Been looking forward to this rivalry all season.  We've got a chance to have a three-game winning streak going into the break, which the biggest importance to us, I think, are the two points.  With all the extra-curriculars and the Winter Classic coming up against them real soon, maybe it s a little preview to what we're gonna have."

Alex Ovechkin: "Yeah, crowd wants to play against those guys, we wanna play them too, so it's gonna be a big matchup and a pretty exciting game too. Tomorrow's very important -- mentally -- game for us.  We won two games in a row, end the losing streak, but tomorrow we're gonna try to take three wins in a row and have good days off."

Coach Bruce Boudreau:  "We're looking forward to the game because the build-up has been so big.  I don't know anything about 'the script' [HBO's 24/7].  [Pittsburgh] hasn't stopped winning, they had a little blip on the radar.  We're in, like, a mini-turnaround.  We're not where we want to be, but it's better than going in 0-10.  It's a great barometer to see where we're at."

"They're a great team and we have a good rivalry against them.  It's one of the great things HBO is going to be able to catch is all the talk and what we think goes on, will go on."

So you can see, there's some appreciation of the historic rivalry, but the active coaches and players are concentrating more on the actual game and what it means to them.  They know and understand they are playing for Washington hockey fans' civic pride, but the two points in the standing right now are more important.

Could Andrew Gordon be any happier? (D.Nichols/Caps News Network)

THE RESULT:  You've got to give Washington Capitals fans one thing: They know who's next on the schedule.

Mid-way through the third period, when this one was well beyond doubt, the chant started.

"WE WANT PITTSBURGH!"

It's certainly premature for the fan base of a team just two games removed from an eight-game losing streak to start taunting their fiercest rival, but there it was.  It was heard by a national television audience on the Versus Network.

And you KNOW they heard it in Western PA.

But the Capitals did exactly what they HAD to do tonight:  dominate a completely inferior opponent on home ice.

After the misery that was going through D.C. in recent days, the win was a hopeful sign to the fan base that their Capitals were back.  You'll have to forgive them for their exuberance.

After the Caps put the finishing touches on their second straight win, a 5-1 drubbing of the New Jersey Devils, the locker room as well seemed to have a different feeling.  Not of relief, per se, but of normalcy.

Washington regains first place in the Southeast Division by one point (20-12-4, 44 points) over Atlanta and remains two points behind Pittsburgh for second place in the conference.

The Caps got great contributions from recent call-ups from AHL Hershey in this one, as Andrew Gordon and Jay Beagle both chipped in with goals, and Jason Chimera broke his long scoreless streak with a goal, his 200th career NHL point.

John Carlson added a goal, assist, and was plus-4 on the night.

To say Gordon was excited about his first NHL goal is an understatement.  After tipping in a perfect crossing pass from the boards by Marcus Johansson, he found his Swedish center back on the bench and gave him a big kiss on the cheek, of course caught by the TV cameras.

“It’s a weight off my shoulders," Gordon said. "I came here wanting to contribute and show I could do it up here. I’ve had a couple opportunities the last few games but finally got a nice one to squeak through on a great pass.”

"The boys have been through quite a bit in the last few weeks and to get a couple wins in a row is always a good feeling.”

video
Video D.Nichols/Caps News Network

For his part on the play, Johansson just needed to beat a cheating defenseman to the puck.  “I was just hoping the puck would bounce over the defenseman’s stick at the redline and it did. I looked to the middle and saw Gordon had more speed than his defenseman so I just tried to hit him and it turned out pretty good.”

Pretty good, indeed.

Chimera's milestone came as a relief as well.  "It's nice.  It seems like I was on it for 85 games.  My three-year old made me goals scoring cookies today, so I think they helped out, so I'll give the credit to him."

"It's nice to get back-to-back wins, especially with all the questions about us, whether we're gonna play good or not.  We played pretty solid tonight."

Coach Bruce Boudreau remarked on the play of the recent call-ups after the game.

“I thought they all played great. They had lots of energy, they followed direction and they played with passion and enthusiasm. When you do that, usually, no matter what league you’re in you’re going to have success.”

And does adding a youthful outlook to the locker room alter the mood?  “I think winning rejuvenates guys too. I mean it’s a much happier locker room the last couple of games, so that’s good.”

The Capitals needed this one.  After squeaking out a 3-2 win over Ottawa Saturday night, they needed to come home and take care of business against one of the worst teams in the NHL, something they could not do two weeks ago against Toronto.

But with the Penguins looming Thursday, then again on New Year's Day, this team needs to find a semblance of efficiency and cohesion.

Perhaps the influx of talent from their very well-prepared minor league affiliate was just what the doctor ordered, starting with Carlson and Karl Alzner, then Johansson and Mathieu Perreault, now continuing with Gordon and Beagle.

Can a team whose best players aren't even at their physical prime yet already be ushering in another wave of "young guns"?

THE GOOD:  Going to the bakery.  Four of the Caps five goals were from close in, including Beagle's stuff from a nice Steckel move and pass and Mike Knuble's redirect of an entry feed by Tom Poti.

THE BAD:  Matt Bradley broke a finger and will miss two-to-four weeks.  He will also miss the Winter Classic.  We'll have more on this from practice Wednesday, but it's a huge blow to the soul of this team.

THE UGLY: Mark Fayne.  The New Jersey defenseman was victimized by Johansson on the first goal at center ice, and Chimera skated right past him on his goal.

THE STATS:

1st Period:  16:41 WSH Andrew Gordon (1) Tip-In - Assists: M. Johansson (3) & J. Erskine (5)
2nd Period:  4:56 NJD PPG - Patrik Elias (7) Tip-In - Assists: J. Langenbrunner (9) & T. Zajac (14)
10:00 WSH Jay Beagle (1) Wrist Shot - Assists: D. Steckel (4) & M. Bradley (6)
12:39 WSH Jason Chimera (5) Wrist Shot - Assists: A. Gordon (1) & J. Carlson (13)
16:31 WSH John Carlson (4) Slap Shot - Assists: A. Ovechkin (27)
3rd Period: 12:01 WSH Mike Knuble (7) Tip-In - Assists: T. Poti (5) & B. Laich (14)

NEXT GAME:  Thursday night at 7:00 pm against the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center.

CAPS NEWS NETWORK THREE STARS

3. Michael Neuvirth.  35 saves on 36 shots.  Kicked pucks to the corners all night long.
2. Andrew Gordon.  First NHL goal and assist.  And the kiss that sealed the deal.
1. John Carlson.  Goal.  Assist.  Plus-4. He's growing up right before our eyes.

PHOTOS (all photos C. Nichols/Caps News Network)





CAPS WIN! Fan Base Backs Off the Ledge

Posted by Dave Nichols | Monday, December 20, 2010 | , | 0 comments »

Everyone can take a big sigh of relief.

The Washington Capitals can now go back to their business of being a hockey team instead of answering questions about their coach's immediate job security, the 24/7 pressure of, well, HBO's 24/7, and everything else that was associated with the losing streak.

No one liked what happened.  There might have been bandwagoneers that jumped off.  And those commenters on certain blogs and message boards theoretically have added the eight-game losing streak to their arsenal of why Bruce Boudreau or General Manager George McPhee are unfit for their current positions.

But it's over.  A simple 3-2 win over the Ottawa Senators, something many folks in the DMV (and elsewhere) have taken for granted the past couple of seasons, has changed the outlooks for folks that like to wear red this time of year.  And I'm not talking about holiday helpers.

We all saw it.  People proclaiming their Winter Classic tickets were up for sale.  "Die-hards" feeling embarrassed to be seen in their Ovechkin jersey.  Nasty tweets and comments and blog posts.

But all it was was a slump.  It was a bad slump, and it reinforced some of the things this team needs to work on to excel in the playoffs.  But it was a slump, nonetheless. 

You can never take winning for granted.  Certainly there were portions of the fan base that had forgotten that.  This league is hard.  Maybe some of that had leaked into the locker room?  Who knows, but Boudreau's comments of players feeling sorry for themselves might indicate that it had.

The weight of the world has lifted of the Captials' shoulders.  They were playing better through the last couple games of the slump.  They finally got their streak-ending win.  Hopefully whatever strain of influenza that infected the locker room has run its course.  Maybe a complete game victory over New Jersey Tuesday night will be the thing to inspire this team into a lengthy win streak to erase the damage the losing streak did.

Because for all of the hand-wringing and hair pulling, the Caps still sit third in the East in points, just two points behind Pittsburgh for second, who have their own problems to worry about now.

After witnessing an eight-game losing streak, anyone that calls themselves a Caps fan today must not take winning regular season games for granted.  Not now.  Hopefully, that message has sunk in to the guys that play the game as well. 

Because there are still a lot of regular season hockey games left to be played.