GAME 56 RE-CAP: Talent Means Nothing Without Effort

Posted by Dave Nichols | Saturday, February 12, 2011 | , , , , | 0 comments »

"For whatever reason, we stopped working.  We got comfortable -- a little too comfortable." -- Karl Alzner

Just over one minute into the game, Alex Ovechkin gave the Washington Capitals a 1-0 lead as he used All-Star defenseman Drew Doughty as a screen at the top of the face-off circle and beat Los Angeles Kings' backup goalie Jonathan Bernier for his 21st goal of the season.

That was the peak of the Caps effort today.  One minute, six seconds.  Oh, and the goal was unassisted.

They spent the rest of the game fumbling passes, turning the puck over, watching each other to see if anyone was going to fight for the puck and squandering power play opportunities, eventually falling to a team in the middle of a ten-game road trip, 4-1, before a very disgruntled sold out crowd at Verizon Center.

If the boos and ugly comments raining down from the 400 sections in front of the press box were any indication of the mood of the typical Caps fan after this lackluster performance, the Caps must be looking forward to heading out on a five-game roadie of their own.

The first two periods were just a continuation of the general malaise that has followed this team around much of the season.  There were sparks of effort, but nothing sustained.  All the jokes about a sluggish 12:30 pm start rang true.

In the third period, however, the Capitals just stopped playing hockey.  Most of the players on the ice looked like they'd have rather been anywhere than where they were.  And the results -- three third period goals for the Kings -- were expected and justified.

As usual after a tough loss, veteran forward Mike Knuble held court for the media in the locker room after the game.

"I don't know what we're waiting for.  There's a lot to play for -- as players, as individuals, as a team.  Every game is important.  Those are huge points we left on the table the last two games."

"[The Kings] were capitalizing on loose pucks and we aren't.  We're coming to a key point in the season.  I'm sure we're all aware of that.  It's time to start throwing the switch toward the playoffs.  It's like we're waiting for something to happen.  We're waiting for something."

Coach Bruce Boudreau seemed surprised that his team was waiting for a switch to be thrown.  "If they're waiting for some switch to magically appear, it's not going to happen." 

"We got outworked in the first, outworked in the second.  All we had to do is outwork them in the third to start a tough road trip, and they looked like they already were thinking about what's going on in the sun."

If Boudreau was looking for this game to build momentum for the five-game west coast road trip, what he got was the complete opposite.  "It's really diappointing.  Hopefully this is as low as we get.  This was something we were counting on -- as a coaching staff at least -- to come in, win this game as a springboard for a tough road trip."

Boudreau talked about the faltering power play, which went 0-for-5 today.  "We've practiced it more in the past month than we did all last year.  It's the same guys.  The number one thing we have to do is win battles.  Every loose puck, [the Kings] got.  Every time there was a one-on-one situation, [the Kings] got it."

Boudreau's right.  His team did not put out the requisite effort needed to compete in the National Hockey League.  It's a script that is all too familiar at this point in the season.

Do changes need to be made?  Has this team tuned out their coach?  Would a change at that level make any difference at this point in the season?

Or, are some of the players on this team even capable of being motivated by anything other than what drives them personally?

What about a change to the roster?  Boudreau said he "tried" to send a message at the end of the game by benching a couple players, and managing minutes that way could be a method to inspire effort.  But he also said that he needs his best players to be his best players and he needs them on the ice.

This team seems to "get up" for marquee games.  Pittsburgh.  New Year's Day.  National television.  When they play motivated, they are one of the most talented teams in the league.

But games like today show that all the talent in the world can't succeed unless you put out the effort.

It's not too late for the Washington Capitals to find that effort and make a push as they head down the homestretch.  It's hard to imagine this team not qualifying for the playoffs at this point. 

But what's the point if they can't find the effort within themselves needed to succeed?

GAME 55 RE-CAP: Lack of Offense Leads to Loss

Posted by Dave Nichols | Wednesday, February 09, 2011 | , , , | 0 comments »

"If you play for one run, that's all you'll get." 

Long-time Baltimore Orioles manager Earl Weaver said that in his book, Weaver on Strategy.  He's of course referring to baseball, but I think that little gem applies to what the Washington Capitals are going through right now, and last night's 2-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks in particular.

The Caps, still mired in an epic scoring drought from their best players, have changed their style of play from a wide-open attack to a more defense-oriented system.  They are playing very well defensively, giving up just 1.7 goals per game since the middle of December, and are fifth in the league overall in goals against per game at 2.38.

Yet here they sit, in the middle of the pack of teams trying to qualify for the playoffs.  Currently, the Caps are in fifth, just seven points out of first place.  But they're also just nine points from eighth.  They are treading water during the time of the season where you want to start ramping up your game toward the playoffs.

We saw an all-too-familiar script again last night.  The Caps came out buzzing against the Sharks, dominating the offensive zone in the first period, but not getting enough quality chances on goal.  And those that did make it through were being gobbled up by yet another average goalie, this time Antti Niemi.  When the period ended in a scoreless tie, you could almost see where this one was going.

On cue, the Caps stopped doing the things they were having success with early in the game and satisfied themselves the rest of the game with mid-to-long range shots that were either off the mark or knocked down by defenders.  Washington ended with 25 shots on goal (eight in the last 2:30), but had another 25 shots blocked and nine go astray.

Sounds like a few games last April, eh?

There's no margin for error playing a defensive style of hockey.  If you make one mistake, you're toast.  And that's exactly what happened at 11:55 of the third, when Michal Neuvirth let a soft wrist shot from Logan Couture get through him. 

Look, it's hard to pin this game on Neuvy.  He was excellent the first 51 minutes of the game.  Both he and his coach knew though that's a stop he's got to make in a tight game.  "They got a little bit lucky on that first goal," Neuvirth said.  "It kind of surprised me. Goals happen. I got to be square next time.”

Coach Bruce Boudreau was more pointed in his critique. 

"In the end, he played good for 51 minutes. But if you want to be a great goalie in this league, when the game is on the line, you have to be the one to stop those. I thought those goals were not of the variety that should have beaten him, but at the same time, I thought he kept us in for the first period.”

But that's what happens when you play with such a small margin of error.  One mistake can cost you the game.  And that's what happened last night.

Last year, if the Caps got down a goal or two, it was no big deal.  That's the luxury of averaging almost four goals per game and having the league's top rated power play.  My, what difference a year makes.

What kills me about all this is that the Capitals are allowing the media to dictate their style of play.  They've bought in to the idea that "playoff hockey" is built around 2-1 games and that this team would never succeed in the playoffs playing the all-out attack of the last two seasons.

But a tiger can't change it's stripes.

The new system the Caps are employing certainly plays well for some of the personnel on the squad.  Karl Alzner, Scott Hannan, Jeff Schultz, John Erskine; they're all flourishing in a slower, muck up the middle, defensive game.  If the forwards bear more burden with defensive responsibility, it leads to fewer odd-man rushes and less stress on the defenders.

But it's neutering this team's biggest strengths.  Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Brooks Laich.  All on pace for drastically lower totals in goals and points than career norms.

The Capitals have been shut out eight times this season.  EIGHT!  It's hard to even fathom it.

The Caps are 17th in the league in goals per game with just 2.69.  The power play is 18th in the league.  Dreadful.

This change in philosophy for the Capitals is preparing them to play a bunch of 2-1 games come springtime alright.  Just hard to figure right now which end they'll be on.

Ewell Leaves Legacy in Caps Press Box

Posted by Dave Nichols | Tuesday, February 08, 2011 | , , , , | 0 comments »

Today is Nate Ewell's last game as Vice President of Communications with the Washington Capitals.  It's a position that lives in obscurity in most hockey towns: writing game notes, ushering players to media appearances, doling out press credentials. 

But in D.C., Nate Ewell is a rock star.

It wasn't his intent.  You can read a very well written biography and appreciation of Nate here and here.  It's not in his makeup to call attention to himself.  But his hard work and dedication to this organization have become legend, and if you're reading this blog, chances are you're doing it because Nate Ewell influenced you as well, whether you realize it or not.

There's been a sad exodus from the Caps' media relations department over the past year.  First, Paul Rovnak left last season to assume P.R. duties for men's hockey at University of Minnesota.  Then we found out web producer, emergency goalie and bon vivant Brett "Stretch" Leonhardt was moving to Toronto to work with the league. 

Now, the biggest bombshell of them all:  Nate Ewell is leaving the Caps to follow his passion:  college hockey.  He will become Director of Communications with College Hockey, Inc., helping to grow the sport he loves so much at a level that is so close to home for him.

Opportunity calls when you're the best at what you do.  It's no wonder the Caps Media Relations Department has had a stranglehold on the league's "Best Of" award.

Capitals fans take a lot of things for granted these days.  They expect perfection on the ice.  They expect the owner to be at their beck-and-call.  They expect open and fan-friendly practices.  They expect dozens of well-written and engaging blogs to entertain and inform them.

But you see, it's not like this in other markets.  Not even close.

Hockey in general -- the NHL in particular -- had to be brought kicking and screaming into the digital age, and Ted Leonsis and Nate Ewell were the architects of the process.

After the lockout, Leonsis had the vision to treat his sports management businesses in a transparent manner, letting the public know his plan and involving the fans in his decision-making process.  A very big part of the plan was opening the press box to independent media, increasing the number and variety of voices that carry the message to the fans.

The man responsible for implementing and nurturing that part of the process was Nate Ewell.

Managing a media relations department for a pro sports team is a full-time job in and of itself.  Add the duties of shepherding one of the faces of the entire league to endless media opprtunities and the burdens could seem endless.  Now integrate an in-house media department, with full-time beat reporter and video producer.

It would be understandable if there was no time left for a bunch of bloggers.

But the Caps, and Nate in particular, don't see it that way.  They know that the independent media that cover the team are a vital, integral part of how they get their message out to the fans.  They know they need to cultivate independent media that cover the Caps in a town dominated by coverage of the NFL team.

On a typical night in the Washington Capitals press box, independent media usually equal, if not outnumber, traditional media.  And it's all thanks to Nate and his staff.

And it's not just in the press box.  Nate's been active in the community and on twitter, sharing nuggets from his meticulous game notes to followers, offering funny stories on players or media members, making arrangements for pick-ups of fan-made baked goods, or sticking up for the team against criticism from national media.

Nate's legacy will live on, not just in the Caps press box, but in the tens of thousands of Capitals fans -- new and veteran, young and old -- who follow this team on daily basis, enjoying so much more quality coverage, in depth and breadth,  than ever before.

 It's not like this in other markets.  Not even close. 

Cheers Nate.  And thank you.

"They don't like us. We don't like them.  That's the way it should be." -- Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau

THE RESULT:  The Washington Capitals dominated their arch-rivals on defense, shutting out the formerly high-scoring Pittsburgh Penguins 3-0 on Super Bowl Sunday.  It was Washington's eighth straight win on "Super Sunday" and improves their career line to 14-3-1 on the big day.

Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth made 22 saves for his second shut out of the season and forwards Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson and Mike Knuble each scored to lead the Caps to victory.

Neuvirth didn't forget comments Pittsburgh coach Dan Bylsma made about him during HBO's 24/7 leading up to the Winter Classic, calling the rookie goaltender "shaky."  

“Of course," Neuvirth said.  "I watched every episode, but this is hockey. It didn’t really bother me. But now I’m really happy that I shut them down. It’s even better for me right now.”

"Before the game, I remembered when he said that and I kind of looked at him during the warm up and told myself that I got to shut these guys out tonight.”

The Capitals dominated the suddenly offensively struggling Penguins on defense, clogging up the passing lanes, shutting down their power play, and blocking 18 shots.

"That's all about commitment," Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said.  "A commitment to winning.  It's what it is.  You block shots, you get in the way, one of your teammates goes down another one picks it up."

But the real stories of this game ended up being nothing about the game, and more the extra-curriculars that always seem to be associated with the Caps and the Pens.

In what can only be described as two acts of cowardice, the Penguins looked to get retribution for the New Year's Day collision between David Steckel and Sidney Crosby. 

The play, which was ruled by the league office to be incidental contact, could very well have left Crosby with a concussion, though Pittsburgh team doctors allowed him to return not only to that game, but play in the next one as well until an innocuous hit by Tampa Bay's Victor Hedman sent Crosby to the dressing room. 

Crosby has not returned to the ice since.

The Penguins have incessantly discussed in the media how they though Steckel's hit was dirty and intentional, and since this was the next occasion for the two teams to face each other, it was logical that either Matt Cooke, Michael Rupp or Deryk Engelland -- Pittsburgh's tough guys -- would mix it up with Steckel early in the game, get it out of the way, and play the hockey game.

That didn't turn out to be the case.

Instead, Bylsma waited until the 7:52 mark of the third period of a close game to send out Tim Wallace, just recalled from AHL Wilkes-Barre, to challenge Steckel -- the league's top faceoff specialist -- at an offensive-zone draw for the Caps.

It was Wallace's first game of the season for the Penguins and he had skated just seven shifts to that point in the game.

"I certainly thought he did a good job of stepping up and fighting Steckel," Bylsma said, as if Steckel was the one that initiated the clearly staged bout. 

Then, when asked if he was surprised that Wallace -- a player that has 27 goals in the minors this season and wasn't even on the roster for the Winter Classic -- took up the role, Bylsma referenced the Crosby incident again saying, "We all watched the game I think, whether we were there or on TV."

As if that wasn't bad enough, with less than four minutes left in the game with Alex Ovechkin trying to get the puck out of the Caps end, veteran cheap-shot artist Matt Cooke ran Ovechkin, intentionally sticking his knee out as the Great Eight sped by, sending Ovechkin down in a heap, and immediately raised his hands in the air with his palms up as if to ask, "What did I do?"

Ovechkin bounced up and he and Nick Backstrom descended on Cooke, both getting shots in to Cooke's head before the ensuing scrum.  Cooke was awarded just a two minute tripping call, when it very easily could have been a kneeing major or game disqualification.

"I just tracked the puck and he tried to cut back on me," Cooke said. "We clipped skates."

Said Bylsma: "I didn't think much contact was made. Maybe their skates get wound up together."

Take a look at this replay and you decide whether their skates made any contact. 

Remember, Cooke is the player that blind-sided Marc Savard of Boston, ruining Savard's career.

Matt Bradley was willing to take up the cause against Cooke when the winger left the penalty box, but according to Bradley, Cooke declined.  "He made his choice, he went to the bench and that's fine and all.  But he would have done the same thing if it was the other way around.  He runs at our best player, we're gonna retaliate."

Boudreau was irate after the game about both incidents.

"It was Matt Cooke. Need we say more? It's not like it's his first rodeo," Boudreau said. "He's done it to everybody and then he goes to the ref and says: 'What did I do?' He knows damn well what he did. There's no doubt in my mind that he's good at it and he knows how to do it. He knows how to pick this stuff. We as a league, we still buy into this [idea] that, 'Oh it was an accidental thing.'"

As for the Wallace-Steckel duel, Boudreau said, "I've coached [Steckel] for eight years and he's never done it once," Boudreau said. "So if they want to use [the New Year's Day collision] as a motivating tool, go ahead. But they send out a guy they called up [to fight]. And Mike Rupp, who is a fighter, knowing Dave never fought, challenging him. To me, it was crap."

It's a real shame a tense, well played game by both teams should end up being remembered for these two incidents instead of the hard work the Capitals did on defense, or the redemptive shut out from Neuvirth, or the beautiful backhanded, short-handed goal from Johansson, or even Laich's second goal in as many games from "The Bakery."

Instead, we're left to dwell on these two cowardly acts and the potential for further retribution down the road. 

THE GOOD: Play by the second and third line centers.  Mathieu Perreault and Marcus Johansson both had very solid games Sunday.  Perreault did tremendous work on Laich's goal, picking the pocket of a Penguins defenseman and feeding John Erskine for a shot from the point that Laich cleaned up on the rebound.

Johansson was a presence on the perfect penalty kill, and his goal was a pretty as it gets.  Marc-Andre Fleury never flinched, so Johansson let the shot go at the precise time when Fleury's defenseman was screening him, and Steckel cutting to the net at the same time might also have distracted the Penguins goalie.

THE BAD: Mike Green took a puck to the side of his head on a shot by Brooks Orpik as time expired on the first period.  He did not return.  After the game he spoke to the media and said he had a headache, but other than that he was fine. 

He had several stitches in his right ear and still had a little blood on the side of his face and neck.  Boudreau called him day-to-day, but I'd be surprised if he wasn't in Tuesday's lineup.

Mike Knuble took a stick to the face late, opening a cut on his right cheek that will probably take a couple of stitches as well.  The refs ruled that Knuble got his with a "follow through", according to Boudreau, and no penalty was called on the play.  Knuble stayed in the game and got his revenge with an empty net goal.

Knuble has scored a goal in all seven of his career games with the Capitals against Pittsburgh.

THE UGLY: Matt Cooke's kneeing of Ovechkin -- and his lame defense by both him and his coach -- are gutless and inexcusable.  Those types of plays are what keeps the NHL a fringe sport.  The "wink-wink" of his defense is pathetic and cowardly.  Do not expect discipline from the league on an obviously intentional play to injure.

THE STATS: Brooks Laich (11) from John Erskine (7) and Mathieu Perreault (6) at 18:22 of 1st.  Marcus Johansson (7) from Jeff Schultz (7) at 3:58 of 2nd (SH).  Mike Knuble (13) from Matt Hendricks (9) at 19:16 of 3rd (EN).

NEXT GAME: Tuesday, Feb. 8 at 7:00 pm against San Jose Sharks at Verizon Center.


3. Matt Hendricks.  Gets the nod for team D with three blocked shots. 
2.  Marcus Johansson.  Played one of his best games of the year.  We've seen in flashes how good he's going to be.
1.  Michal Neuvirth. Shaky on the first couple of shots, but settled in real well.  Second and third handled the few scoring chances Pittsburgh had with ease.

***Thanks to Alex Caudina from WTOP Radio for audio of visiting coach's press conference.

All Photos 2010 © Cheryl Nichols Photography/
Caps News Network. All Rights Reserved.