Wednesday, April 9, 2008

battle for the throne of blood

My recent descent to a luftmensch has seen its share of flailings, not the least of which is the sporadic and unfocused nature of postings here. Hopefully, that will now change as I begin what I expect to be a long series of posts on the Washington Capitals’ run in the NHL playoffs. The Caps have been getting a lot of attention around the league and in the media recently, so let me first fend off any allegations of fairweatherism that may be lobbed at me. A long time hockey fan, I have no hometown team that I root for. Originally an LA Kings fan, I followed Gretzky to the Rangers before Neil Smith ruined the Great One’s last chance at greatness (or even the playoffs) by refusing to part with Manny Malhotra for Pavel Bure. I subsequently discarded any particular allegiance, while still adoring the game and more importantly its players, until the Penguins fired overreacting ogre Kevin Constantine in 2000 and hired Herb Brooks, who promised to employ a run-and-gun, free-flowing attack, which seemed perfectly suited to a team full of European, offensive dynamos. The Pens rolled out some of my favorite players (Kovalev, Straka, Morozov, Kasparitis) and some others I learned to appreciate (Jagr, Lang, Titov). I had finally found my team. The team hired a Euro coach, Lemieux returned the next season, they used five forwards on the powerplay (basically for the two full minutes), and I fell deeper into the throes of fandom. Then, it turned out the coach (Ivan Hlinka, RIP) didn’t know how to coach in the NHL, Jagr, after being asked to be traded twice in-season, finally was traded, Lemieux’s hip went bum, and the firesale was in full force (whatever happened to Sergei Anshakov?). There was little point in continuing to root for a team that bore no resemblance (outside of Morozov still getting no love from Penguin fans) to the one I had fallen for.

There was a brief flirtation with the Ottawa Senators, but I was mostly without a team coming out of the lockout (not including the century-anniversary AK Bars Kazan). Alexander Ovechkin’s dynamic abilities and vivacious personality seemed like an obvious starting point to favor a team, and the following year he was matched (and surpassed in some ways) in slickness and flair by countrymen Alexander Semin. So far, so good. The offseason acquisition of one of my favorite players, Michael Nylander, only sweetened the deal (Nylander would tear his rotator cuff early in the year, apparently from tapping his stick on the ice demanding the puck so frequently). Captain Chris Clark is a warrior and Shaone Morrison is as steady as they come. However, there’s a difference between loving a team and living and dying with them every period, every goal, every wasted 5-3. The Caps had a bunch of players I liked, but they were not a team I loved. That changed with the hiring of career minor leaguer and Slapshot extra, coach Bruce Boudreau. A lot of how much you can cheer for a team, for me at least, has to do with the coaching. Obviously, I can’t put myself in the skates of any NHL player and realistically consider what I would do in their position. It’s easier, however, to imagine oneself behind the bench, juggling line combinations, motivating the troops, charming the media, configuring the powerplay, etc. It’s the coach who sets the tone for the team, and as much as I think Glen Hanlon is probably a good guy, by the end of it he looked like he badly needed a drink and to get canned, in reverse order. Boudreau came in and totally changed the way they played, both for the aesthetic betterment of myself (Mike Green free reign to rush the puck up the ice like a madman, Ovechkin staying on the point for the full powerplay, etc), and the success of the team. He’s as affable and as humble as they come, and I can’t imagine a nicer success story to come out of the NHL coaching ranks in years and years. Add in the classiness of Sergei Fedorov and the hilarity of Brooks Laich, and this is a team that I’m rooting for with whatever’s left of my jaded, alcohol-soaked, cholesterol-filled heart.

So, the good guys had to go on an insane streak just to get in the playoffs: won 7 in a row, 11 out of their last 12, 30-something out of their last 60-something. This is a very good team playing as well as they’ve ever played together. Yet, I’m very concerned how they’ll fair against a pretty good Philadelphia team. Here’s why:

  • Starting Friday. I hate this late start. The Caps were on an absolute roll with those 3 last home wins. It would have been great to keep that momentum going with Game 1 either Wed or Thurs. Yes, the extra days give Morrison and Schultz a chance to get ready, but they also do the same for Briere, Smith, and Hatcher for the bad guys. The Caps were playing so damn well for so long, this artificial break in their routine can only hurt them.

  • Health. Yes it appears that the Caps D are getting healthy, but we’ll see how effective they are. I have no idea what Schultz’s injury is, but it’s pretty clear that Morrison separated his right shoulder. Game 1 would be about 10 days since it happened, and it seems to me that’s a pretty short amount of time to get back at it, especially against a physically punishing (read: dirty as hell) team like the Flyers. Morrison is so key to this team: hitting people, clearing the front of the net, covering for crazy legs Green, if he misses significant time in the series, or is significantly hampered, it could spell disaster for Washington.

  • Philly Depth. I never think about this team except to mutter disgust for everything they stand for, but there are some pretty effective players over there. Incredibly deep down the middle (Richards, Briere, Carter), puck movers on the back end (Timonen, Coburn), physical presence (Smith, Hatcher, Hartnell). This is a pretty damn good team that ended the season with a pretty good run themselves (10-4-4 or something). Richards has turned into a great player at both ends, Briere and Prospal could be a tough combo to check, and Lupul is somehow falling ass backwards into goals.

  • Goon City. As evidenced by the roster of cheap shot artists and 78 different suspensions, the Broad Street Bullies have returned, and you can bet they’re going to try and make this series more about gratuitous violence than actually, you know, playing hockey. I expect them to go after Ovechkin and Backstrom, try to get them off their games; they’re going to hit Green hard, every time he goes back to get it, every time he rushes up the ice. There’ll be a lot of legal hits, and some illegal ones too. The onus is on the refs to keep it clean and call any of that bush league stuff the Flyers are known for.

Nevertheless, I have to believe the Capitals have gone too far to wilt here and now. Here’s why the Caps win.

  • Mike Green. There hasn’t been as swift and pretty a puck rushing defensemen in the league since Brian Leetch. This guy can skate for days and has some pretty sweet dangles to go with those insane legs of his. I expect him to blow by forwards like Hartnell and Carter and attack and attack the Philly D. If I could skate like Mike Green, I would never leave the rink. Negative points for homeboy sporting a Mohawk for the playoffs, but if it makes him clear the front of the net more aggressively, I’m all for it.

  • Brooks Laich. What a beauty of a player. I knew he could check, but who knew he had the moves and scoring touch. I’ve been championing for a while now (to nobody in particular) for Boudreau to put Laich on the first powerplay unit, the thinking being that he goes to the front of the net and creates screens and puts in rebounds. His PPP/60 (power play points per 60 minutes) has to be one of the highest on the team (I should just confirm that, for another day), especially in the last month or so. But, Fedorov has been doing a pretty good job with the first unit, he wins faceoffs, moves the puck well, and is always back to thwart any shorthanded rush. The first unit needs to get more bodies in front if Biron starts to look as if he’s feeling it.

  • Cristobal Huet. I’ve been a big fan for a while, and he’s played exceptional as a Cap. I have every reason to believe he’ll keep it going, and I think the series could come down to goaltending. Huet was great in his one playoff series with the Canadiens.

  • Alexander Ovechkin. Is it possible that he finds another gear for the playoffs? Would this involve him levitating above the ice and knocking the puck around out of the air?

In the end, Caps in 6, with some nail biting along the way for sure.

A quick look at the other series and predictions:

Detroit over Nashville in 5 – Detroit is the class of the league, they’re almost totally healthy, and shouldn’t have much of a problem here. If there was another league better than the NHL, Datsyuk, Zetterberh, and Lidstrom would be the best players in that league too. Kudos to the Preds for getting here.

San Jose over Calgary in 7 – This one’s going to be a battle and I look forward to some compelling OT action here. I guess it’ll come down to goaltending and I think Kiprusoff has a greater ability to steal more games than Nabokov. I’ll go with San Jose only because they have a little more depth and have been insanely hot getting here.

Minnesota over Colorado in 7 – Another pretty tough one to call. The prospect of Forsberg and Sakic and Foote back together (combined with a healthy team finally) makes me think the Aves will win. Add in Minnesota’s injuries on defense, and it really makes me think the Aves will win. But I’m usually wrong about these, so I’ll go with the Wild.

Anaheim over Dallas in 5 – The Ducks are built for this and the Stars without Zubov are a shell of themselves.

Montreal over Boston in 5 – If someone would have told me a few years ago that Alexei Kovalev had a DVD where he showed off sick stickhandling moves, I wouldn’t be able to rest until obtaining a copy. I’m still pretty excited about this, but let’s just say, I’ve taken a different view on resting.

Pittsburgh over Ottawa in 4 – Classless but smart move by the Penguins in obviously tanking their last game to avoid the Flyers and get the Sens. Sens were a horrible team for half the year, take away their best player, Daniel Alfredsson, and gritty Mike Fisher, and this one won’t be close. The Senators need to clean house and it starts with the cocaine train Ray Emery and his apologists.

New York over New Jersey in 7 – In what could be the longest and most boring of them all, Rangers win a goaltending yawn fest. These teams play equally boring games, but the Rangers have more firepower to close the deal. Ideally, both teams will suffer a rash of injuries and be forced to call up Artem Anisimov and Niklas Bergfors, could be the only way I’ll watch.


HipHipHuet said...

Great analysis man. George McPhee made some brilliant moves to pick up Federov, Huet and my favorite addition, Matt Cooke before the deadline. Bruce's offensive system is phenomenal and I'm impressed at how well the team embraced and implemented it. One let down for me is Eric Fehr--if this guy wants to stay in the the league he has to start capitalizing (pun intended) on the opps he's is getting. Great skated but lousy finisher. I'm also worried about the D situation with Morrisonn and Shultz nursing injuries. Hopefully, we can stay out of the box and on the PP against the goons from Philly. Latest report is that Briere may not be ready to go.

rananda said...

matt cooke is a canon ball and i fully expect him to be annihilating the flyer d all series long. he's the kind of player that can wear down the opposition in a long series.

re fehr, you know i was never really too high on him, but i was actually impressed with his play this year. obv the back injury was pretty serious, but he seems over it now. he hasnt finished this year, but the dude has a sick release and it's no wonder how he scored so much in the whl. obv that pick still looks bad with getzlaf, perry, kesler, and richards all on the board, but i think he has a shot of becoming at least a decent scorer in the nhl. you can't teach that release. i wouldnt mind seeing him inserted in the lineup these playoffs if flash stalls out. you cant teach that wrist shot.

interesting re briere, i had not heard that, but certainly good news.