2019 Playoffs: Conference Finals

Went 1 of 4 last round– batting a total of 25% on the playoffs, so here goes a whole lot of nothing.

BOSTON vs. CAROLINA
Prediction: Carolina in 7
Reason: I’ve been low on Carolina, but they’ve done great. They’ve also got a longer layoff, which would be great this time of the year, especially with the injuries they’ve encountered recently. Even if Petr Mrazek is done, Curtis McElhinney has been stellar, while Sebastian Aho is starting to really turn to form with Justin Williams there. That said, Tuukka Rask has looked better than ever and could very well carry the Bruins onward.

SAN JOSE vs. ST. LOUIS
Prediction: San Jose in 7
Reason: They’ve gone seven the past two series, why not a third?? Martin Jones has really turned it around for the most part, while Joe Pavelski coming back could very well give them the jolt they may have needed. The defense may need to tighten up a bit, while Jordan Binnington could be their toughest foe goalie yet. Also, Jaden Schwartz has been stellar and David Perron could be the thorn in the side needed to maybe rustle the Sharks’ jimmies.

NHL Playoffs 2019: Round One

Since no one asked– here’s my picks and a reason.

TAMPA BAY vs. COLUMBUS
Prediction: Tampa in 5
Reason: As much as I may no believe in the Lightning down the stretch, the Blue Jackets were too hot going into the playoffs to have much left in the tank. Also, Nikita Kucherov will most likely continue to step-up his game in the second season.

BOSTON vs. TORONTO
Prediction: Boston in 6
Reason: We’ve seen this song before and Toronto isn’t that great against Boston in the playoffs. Goaltending is a disaster for the Leafs, while their defense isn’t much better.

WASHINGTON vs. CAROLINA
Prediction: Washington in 6
Reason: Give the Jerks credit, they clawed back to get in this spot. However, the Caps seem to enjoy feasting on the Canes in life. Plus, the Caps want to get back to the Promised Land to hoist the Cup again, so they’ll do whatever it takes to win it again

NY ISLANDERS vs. PITTSBURGH
Prediction: Penguins in 6
Reason: As much as I want to believe in Robin Lehner and Thomas Greiss; Sidney Crosby, Phil Kessel, and a somewhat healthy Evgeni Malkin trump that. Only hope is Matt Murray stinking up the joint

CALGARY vs. COLORADO
Prediction: Calgary in 6
Reason: Goaltending aside, the Flames won the Western Conference for a reason. Especially with Mikko Rantanen just coming back from injury– who knows how effective he will be. Though, some pressure may be on Johnny Gaudreau and friends to make an unexpected run.

SAN JOSE vs. VEGAS
Prediction: Vegas in 5
Reason: Playoffs is about defense and as much as the Sharks have Brent Burns and Erik Karlsson to add some punch offensively, Martin Jones hasn’t been great. The Knights enjoyed a nice taste last year and probably want to make people know it wasn’t a fluke.

WINNIPEG vs. ST. LOUIS
Prediction: St. Louis in 7
Reason: I don’t know why, but the Blues could be a sleeper team to make some noise. They weren’t even supposed to be here, but Jordan Binnington decided that he’d show Jake Allen how to play in net. They’ll be a tough out with JB in net.

NASHVILLE vs. DALLAS
Prediction: Nashville in 6
Reason: With the window for the Preds and all their talent, it could be the perfect time for them to run wild in the West. They probably still feel the sting of the lost to Winnipeg and want to make a statement run at the Cup this year.

The Playoff Format is Fine

There has been a vocal group of people who say that the playoff format is not far. Whether it’s fans or pundits or some players, people aren’t fond of playing teams in their division.

Not shockingly, it’s because the Toronto Maple Leafs are one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference, would have to presumably take on both the Lightning and the Bruins– the other two top teams in the East, and Toronto fans and pundits by and large and whiny personalities when they don’t get their way because they feel it’s their birthright to have everything handed to them.

The format the way it is now– to play out of your division before getting to the Conference Finals– is PERFECTLY FINE. If you have a division that’s tough– sobeit. If you have a division that’s weak– that’s fine, too. There’s no reason that it should change because fans wanted more rivalries in their hockey and now that they have it– they don’t want it anymore.

Back when people in Toronto pundits knew about hockey outside of their postal code, there was some kind of pride of winning the division you played in. That your team was the top in a division and you got to lord that over your divisional rivals the entire next season. For some reason, now it’s about having the easiest path to the Conference Finals and potentially the Stanley Cup.

Part of that, I have to say, is the Southeast Division’s craptasticness and their sullying of the divisional title crowns, while not having another team in that division being int he playoffs. That’s what happens when a league feels there needs to be symmetry across the divisions having an equal amount of teams.

There is no playoff system that people will universally agree on. Personally, this system works great in my opinion– especially with the NHL’s push for their national TV broadcast being based around rivalries…kind of. The point is that all the buzzwords come out in the playoffs– grit, desire, passion, hard work– and it seems that they are true…to a point, when you have to face adversity in the first round.

Only redeeming quality is there’s a build-in excuse for some if they go out early– they had to play teams that were too hard to play against. I’m sure that’s something that will fly with a fan base.

Time is Now for Lightning to Strike

Let’s talk about the Tampa Bay Lightning, shall we?? It’s hard not to considering they are the top team in the NHL by a landslide. They have Nikita Kucherov– who is shattering team records with a vengeance, as well as Brayden Point, who is probably the most slept on scorer in the NHL because Kucherov and Steven Stamkos are on the team. Plus, Andrei Vasilevskiy has been sturdy in net and really hasn’t complained about being tired yet– a far cry from last season.

This is all after former GM and noted waitress stealer Steve Yzerman left the team days before training camp begun.

In fact, this is a team that reminds me of a team Steve Yzerman played for…well, the only team he played for, but of an era. This team seems a bit like the mid-to-late-90s Detroit Red Wings. While they didn’t have the big star power that those teams had, but they have the ability to win, multiple 30-plus goal scorers, and solid defense in Victor Hedman and Ryan McDonagh.

Plus, the Lighting only need 10 more wins in their next 13 games to match the 1995-96 Red Wings for most wins by a team in a season. Sure, you could bitch about the new overtime rules and shootout skewing the win number, but shut up. Sixty-two wins is 62 wins.

We all know that their sheer bulk of goals probably will dwindle in the playoffs since the second-season is all about that defense– as you could tell by this team last year who only had 50 goals in 17 games of the playoffs (2.94 GPG) after having 294 in the regular season (3.58 GPG).

That said, I’m sure there’s still a bitter taste in their mouth from last year– losing games six and seven of the conference finals and not scoring a single goal in those 120 minutes of regulation. Plus, it’s the second time in three seasons they lost in seven games in a conference finals and are four playoffs removed from losing in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final to the Chicago Blackhawks, ending their dynasty.

You can almost assume the talk of Steven Stamkos’ “legacy” will be talked about if this team doesn’t win the Cup– almost like how Yzerman had that dogging him until he won his first Cup in 1997, which was two seasons removed from his first Cup Final– a loss to the Devils.

With the tear the Kucherov is on, the goals that Point has produced, and probably the sheer will and determination of Stamkos to nip the playoff demons in the bud– the offense will be more apt to find a way to keep their torrid pace going in the playoffs. Assuming Vasilevskiy gets a rest in the last weeks of the season, they could very well be running roughshod over the Eastern Conference.

That all being said, the last time a Presidents’ Trophy winner won the Stanley Cup was the shortened season of 2012-13 when the Blackhawks did it against Boston. Prior to that, the Red Wings won both in 2007-08. Of the last five Presidents’ Trophy winners, only one has made it past the second round and none have made it to the Cup Final. The team the Bolts may or may not be chasing for the wins and points record– the 1995-96 Red Wings– lost in the Conference Final.

If the Bolts are going to get their franchise’s second Stanley Cup, this is the prime time to do so with a team as stacked as they’ve shown all season.

Summer Meandering: Capitals Stanley Cup DVD Review

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This is exactly what the title describes– it’s my review of the Caps Stanley Cup DVD. Despite it taking almost 30 years for me as a fan to get this DVD….what would be another couple days, as I saw many people getting their DVDs a couple days before release and me getting mine a couple days after– way to go Fanatics, North Dakota, and USPS. Regardless, this was the automatic purchase for me and in all honesty, I was pretty excited considering the NHL Productions department usually does a bang up job when it comes to molding their footage into a solid collection of a season, career, whatever.

This is a long read. It’s very meandering– hence the title of this. So– here’s a TL;DR portion for it from me.

PROS: Interviews with players, personnel, and everyone involved; solid game footage and variety of calls
CONS: Censorship of language on a DVD; terrible bonus coverage; not enough time dedicated to some of the regular season and some playoff series

Okay, so now pack a lunch because it’s a quite thorough thing from me, trying to capture the moment like Dicky Dunn.

Continue reading

Caps By The Numbers: Game-Time Decision Nets Game Winner

After leaving the game early in Game 2, Evgeny Kuznetsov was a game-time decision for Game 3. That decision wasn’t one, as he was probably going to play all along. It’s a good thing he did, as he netted the game-winner for the Caps in Game 3 under the blocker of Marc-Andre Fleury to help give the Caps a 3-1 win and a 2-1 series lead. Alex Ovechkin started the scoring for the Caps off a frantic series of events in front, going back-hand on Fleury’s blocker side. Kuznetsov scored in the second, but a botched clearing attempt by Braden Holtby allowed Vegas to cut the lead to 2-1 after Tomas Nosek made Holtby pay for his blunder. The Caps were undeterred, as a wonderful forecheck by Jay Beagle allowed him to strip Shea Theodore of the puck, pass it right on the tape of Devante Smith-Pelly, who then roofed it over Fleury’s glove for the 3-1 marker. Game 4 goes Monday, still in Washington.

Win number fourteen means it’s time to profile a #14 in Caps history.

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When it comes to #14s there has been a lot– some of which have been marred by allegation that were proven false, some have been there for a cup of coffee, while others just used it as a number. For this player, he could have been something that Alex Ovechkin is now, as he was a highly touted player coming out of juniors. However, a rash if injuries, including a devastating ankle injury– he could never get his career off the ground. Now, a look at Pat Peake.

Peake was a career Capital, albeit for all of 134 games over five seasons, but before that– he was a major junior superstar, collecting 138 goals and 319 points in three seasons (162 games) with Detroit Compuware/Jr. Red Wings; exploding for 58 goals and 136 points in 46 games in 1992-93.

Peake finally got to the NHL in 1993-94, where he played 49 games for the Caps, registering 11 goals and 29 points on the year. However, that’s when the injuries started to pile up. Shoulder injuries, kidney issues, torn cartilage in his thyroid, and then the injury that would eventually retire him.

Coming off a decent regular season with 17 goals in 62 games, Peake was playing against the Penguins in the playoffs and was skating to cancel out an icing call, he got tripped up, landed feet first into the boards, and shattered his heel, which the doctors said was equal to a construction worker falling off a building feet first. Peake would rehab and need numerous surgeries to try and get his life back together, but it would end his playing career.

Peake stayed in hockey, going from assistant coach, to agent, to head coach of a AAA team in Michigan. While he will go under as one of the biggest 1st round busts, it was a series of unfortunate events that kept him from reaching his full sucess.

Caps By The Numbers: The Save Gives Caps a Split in Vegas

For the first time in franchise history– the Washington Capitals won a game in the Stanley Cup Final. In what could be the best save in his career, Braden Holtby stopped Alex Tuch late in the third period to preserve the Capitals 3-2 lead, which ended up being the final as the teams go back to Washington tied up at one game a piece. Caps goals came from Lars Eller, Alex Ovechkin, but the game-winner came from Brooks Orpik– his first goal in 220 games.

The game didn’t come without a price, as Evgeny Kuznetsov took a hit from Brayden McNab in the first, looking like he jammed his wrist and didn’t return. Late in the game, Jay Beagle took a shot off the inside of his foot. He did play the rest of the game, but had a noticeable hobble when he was on the ice. Luckily, the teams have space between games, as they don’t play until Saturday night.

With the 13th win, we have a former Caps #13.

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Since it’s the first time that the Caps have won their 13 games in the playoffs, why not go with the first guy who wore the #13?? That feat didn’t happen until 1997 when it was the man they call Niko, who first donned the superstitious number after coming over from the Hartford Whalers. It’s time for Andrei Nikolishin.

Nikolishin came into the league as an offensive forward, but adjusted his game to the North American style, while also keeping his solid hands, impressive strength of skating, and one of the most balance players in the league, though the numbers never translated that. Coming to the Caps in the middle of the 1996-97 season, Niko was put into a checking role– which is something he happily went into. While he only peaked at 38 points for the Caps in his six years in DC, Nikolishin’s backchecking, forechecking, and ability to give up the body for the play was one of the big reasons why the Caps wanted him in the trade.

Of course, the relationship wasn’t without its drama with contract disputes. Nikolishin sat out most of the 1997-98 season due to trying to get a better contract, which limited him to only 38 games. However, once the playoffs came– Niko was a big reason why the Capitals were able to get into the Stanley Cup Final, putting up 13 assists in 21 games, while also providing the stingy defense that tends to win you championships.

Nikolishin would improve his offensive output after that season, peaking at 13 goals and 25 assists in 2000-01, complimenting that with a 13-goal, 36-point output for the Caps in 2001-02 before leaving the team to test the waters. With two failed attempts in Chicago and Colorado, Nikolishin went to Russia to end out his career.

My Life As a Caps Fan

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Photo via CapsJerseys.com

This story is unique, but not. Many Caps fans have a similar tale– one of hope, heartbreak, despair, and faith. This is just mine.

My first Caps game I remember seeing on TV was on WDCA Channel 20 when the Caps played the New York Rangers in 1987 or 88. I knew the game of hockey because I had saw two wooden souvenir sticks in my bedroom, I believe a gift from my Godfather. They were red with blue lettering “Washington Capitals” with the Caps logo on it. I also had Fisher-Price roller skates with bells on it– so when I saw the game and wanted to imitate that– my mom and dad were reluctant about it. Not because of the game itself, it was mostly because of the ringing.

The first Caps game I attended was in February of 1989 (a story that I’ll hopefully get to tell at the end of the playoffs). I was instantly hooked, not with hockey– but with the Capitals. They were my local(ish) team, even though the Baltimore Skipjacks were a few miles from me– my dad had some connections at the Capital Centre that allowed us to see many games together until they left for the then MCI Center.

Through it all, this is the team I hung my hat on. From the days of never getting out of the Patrick Division until 1990 or the times going up three games to one in a series, only to lose. From the miraculous run in 1998 until the Cup Final to the Jaromir Jagr trade, which always left a bad taste in my mouth. From all the rebuild, which included Matt Yeats as a goalie to now in this era of Caps hockey that’s great and scary all in one. This is a team that always gave me the highest of highs and lowest of lows in sports fandom.

It also provided a community. Because of the Caps, I got into local hockey– first at Benfield Pines and then Piney Orchard– which happened to be the Caps practice facility. Through youth hockey, I have some of my closest friends, who have all come together through the wonders of social media to enjoy this series, as well as relive moments from our own glory days of travel hockey.

For many, the Caps are more than just a team (not to be confused with the 1989-90 team video), but it’s something that bound us together through our formidable years. We won’t be watching the Cup Final from our assistant coach’s sun room (shoutout Coach Gary), but we’re all in-tune with this. Especially since this is not something that’s supposed to happen. The window for this team was closed after they went all-in with Kevin Shattenkirk. But they kept it open enough to have the breeze roll in and keep the hope alive. Keep this whole thing going, as improbable as it has been.

And I won’t kid anyone in saying that this all seems like a fever dream. The Caps have had the odds against them and it seems like it’s all going to come to an end in typical Caps fashion so many times….but it hasn’t. We’ve prepared for the worst, but the best has been happening. It’s atypical in so many ways– especially with who they’re playing in this Cup Final.

Seemingly, all the playoff ghosts have been vanquished– beating the Penguins, winning a Game 7– save for three: Marc-Andre Fleury (22-12-2 regular season, 8-6 postseason vs. Caps), George McPhee (former Caps GM, now Vegas GM), and Lord Stanley (The Cup). If there was a time to flip the script and eliminate them all– it’s now.

For now…time to face the next game and hope that these past 30 years as a fan of this team that many love (despite them seemingly not wanting to love us back) continues to be all worth it. I’m not ready to use the “B” word when it comes to this team. Maybe if they get four more wins, I can admit to myself– it’s okay. It’s all okay.

Caps By The Numbers: Burakovsky’s Pair Lifts Caps to Stanley Cup Final

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After Alex Ovechkin scored 1:02 into the game, the Tampa Bay Lightning tried like hell to even up the game and take the lead. However, with the Caps setting up a wall in front of Braden Holtby and two Andre Burakovsky goals– the Washington Capitals will go back to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1998. Holtby had back-to-back shutouts and Nicklas Backstrom had the empty net goal to finish it.

The Caps have beaten the Penguins, won a big Game 7, won the Eastern Conference, and now will try to slay another demon in beating Marc-Andre Fleury and George McPhee of the Vegas Golden Knights. Those games start Monday.

Win #12….and there’s only one.

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Before Alex Ovechkin, the Caps’ biggest superstar offensively was Peter Bondra. While he may not have had the national appeal that Ovechkin has, he was a big part of the Capitals offense in the mid-to-late-90s with nine of his 14 seasons being 30-plus goal seasons, including two 50-goal seasons in 1995-96 and 1997-98. Bondra was the new wave of goal-scorer with the exits of Mike Gartner, Dino Ciccarelli,Geoff Courtnall, and really made the team his own.

Once over from what is now Slovakia, Bondra formed a kinship with Michal Pivonka, who helped Bondra and his family get accustom to life in the US and the NHL. While Bondra would also use Dmitri Khristich as a resource, Pivonka and Bondra seemed to be the bosom buddies. With the same agent, both Bondra and Pivonka held out for a period before the 1995-96 season, where they would play in the IHL with the Detroit Vipers. Both would come back and had his top goal scoring season with 52 goals in only 67 games.

As the Caps were sinking, the team felt they owed Bondra the chance to go for a Cup, to which they traded him to Ottawa for Brooks Laich. A chapter of the Caps had closed, but due to that trade and others during the end of 2004, it paved the way for Alex Ovechkin to take the reigns and be the new face of the franchise. Luckily, Bondra is still in this organization, serving as a community ambassador and should be the next in line to get his number retired.

Caps By The Number: Holtby Comes Up Big in Game 6 Win

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In what needed to be their best game of the season in order to survive, the Caps did just that in shutting out the Lightning to force a Game 7 Wednesday. Braden Holtby stopped all 24 shots thrown at him, while TJ Oshie had two goals with Devante Smith-Pelly having the third to give the Caps a 3-0 win.

With win #11, the time has come to talk about a former #11 in Caps history.

When it comes to the Capitals, there’s very few players who grew up in the area that have been able to play on the team. In fact, this #11 is the only one to do so thus far, the Potomac native, Jeff Halpern. He is also the last Capital to wear #11 before it was retired for Mike Gartner.

Halpern grew up in the DC area, but learned his hockey in the Northeast due to not many elite schools in the area during his time. His father would drive him to Connecticut and back for practices and games. While he didn’t get noticed in prep school– Halpern played Junior B in Ontario, which got him noticed for him to go to Princeton.

Though he was undersized, Halpern impressed the Capitals enough during their prospects camp for them to give him a contract after his four seasons at Princeton. Halpern only played six games for the Portland Pirates after his senior season before becoming part of the Caps everyday line-up in 1999-2000. Halpern was a heart-and-soul player, which is to say he didn’t put up the superstar point totals, but had those intangibles that people seem to crave these days. With only one 20-goal season in 2000-01, Halpern was more of the ilk to block shots and get into the dirty areas to score goals.

He was a favorite amongst his teammates, too, which allowed him to be named captain in 2005-06, which was also the last season for him in his first stint with the Capitals. After some time in the south, west, and Montreal; Halpern landed back with the Capitals in 2011-12, playing 69 more games and putting up 16 points before moving onward to different things before his retirement following the 2013-14 season.

It’s a dream of players to play with their hometown team, but not something you often hear about when it comes to the teams in the non-traditional market. For someone like Halpern to come in and be able to achieve that dream created a solid connect and showed that players from that area can make it in the big time.