Archive for March, 2011

Last season I predicted that the Nats would win 75 games, a number I described as being “full of optimism”.  I was off by 6 games as we won only 69.  I don’t know how baseball predictions go, but that seems pretty good to me.  This year there is even more excitement around town about the Nats;  radio stations are making a really big deal about opening day, a lot of folks are wearing their Nats’ caps around town now that the dark, cold winter seems behind us and people are talking about how this team could actually be decent.

Now what does decent mean?  I’m not sure.  I guess decent would mean finishing close to .500.  In order for that to happen, it would seem to me that a lot of things would have to break right.  Let’s start with a few that are on my mind.

The batting order is a work in progress.  From what I’m gathering from having listened to a couple spring training games and reading the papers, the Nats are going to go with Desmond, Werth, Zimmerman, Laroche and Morse as their 1-5 batters with Ramos,  Ankiel and Espinosa  bringing up the rear.  Werth was always the #5 hitter in Philly and it seems to me that you should pay a dude like Werth the kind of money you did to bat in the #4 spot.   Of course, the reason the Nats are doing this is that Zimmerman had less than 90 RBIs last year because no one could get on base in front of him.  I would expect that Espinosa, if he gets off to any kind of decent start, will be batting lead off soon enough which should allow Desmond to fall back into his more natural spot at #2 in the lineup with Werth moving to clean-up.  That to me seems like a pretty decent lineup.

The Nats’ pitching has been a mixed bag during spring training.  There have been signs that Zimmermann’s fastball and curve are even better than before he had surgery two seasons ago.  But he also has been lit up.  Jason Marquis had an awful year last year and things would seem could only go up for him, but the proof will be in the pudding with that.  The Nats seem high on Gorzelanny who I know nothing about, but if he can solidify the #5 spot in the rotation, that would certainly be a change from years past.  John Lannan has always been an up & down pitcher and a year of consistency from him would be nice and of course Hernandez will b e taking the mound today and while he does seem ageless, it seems hard to imagine that  he will have as low an ERA as he did last year.

I’m surprised that the Nats got rid of Morgan so quickly and that Bernadina was sent down leaving Ankiel to play centerfield.  The move to let Dunn go to the White Sox seemed to be a move in the direction of defense and while people say that Ankiel has a stronger arm than Morgan, he could not have nearly the coverage.  Bernadina on the other hand is just about as fast as Morgan and had a stronger arm than Nyjer.  I hope that Bernadina is back up playing with the Nats soon and Ankiel is a stop-gap until Roger gets his swing back because I was very excited with his growth last year as a batter and outfielder especially subbing in for Morgan.

So, despite this somewhat skeptical analysis of the Nats 2011 season, count me in among those who are excited for the season to begin. My daughter can’t wait to see the heads running around the track either.  So my number filled with optimism this year is… 78 wins for the Nationals and I think we may not be occupying the cellar of the division either.

Double vision: It’s so easy to hate the Heat.  Last night’s game was one of the worst officiated NBA games I have ever seen and that’s pretty bad considering how bad NBA officiating can get from time to time.  LeTravel and his cronies got tons of calls, I mean TONS of calls.  While the called the NBA’s next biggest cry-baby Wade for traveling once, LeTravel clearly took 3 steps on 2 different drives, neither of which was called.  Then I really loved the one where LeTravel pushed Crawford down with a stiff forearm to the latter’ back then goes in uncontested for a dunk, hangs on the rim and scowls at Othyus Jeffers (which has now taken its name among the great names in Bullets/Wizards history including:  LeBradford Smith &  Pervis Ellison) and doesn’t a draw a technical for hanging on the rim or taunting.  Godd job refs.  But when Crawford claps his hands in frustration that he didn’t get a foul call, you immediately give him a tech.  Awesome job refs.

Jordan Crawford is playing very well. And the thing I love about him is that he is fearless.  Nick Young has demonstrated great scoring prowess, but it’s all from the outside and his ventures into the paint are more so on the move.  Crawford takes it inside all the time and he is not scared of anyone.  He is not the greatest on the ball defender yet, but he is trying which is something other great offensive stars for this team have never demonstrated.  As a Wizards fan, you have to like the prospects of him and Wall being our backcourt tandem for the years to come.  The dude can definitely score the ball.  Does he take some wild shots?  Yes, but he is learning to let the game come to him as well.  Last night, we could have won had Wall not been thrown out of the game.  That was the only call the refs got right by tossing Wall, Z and Howard, the latter two of which are really a bunch of punks.  I loved how LeTravel later said that “elbows are part of the game” like the time he gave Blatche a concussion in the playoffs when he popped Andre with an elbow, but when Haywood grabbed LeTravel’s elbow on a subsequent drive, LeTravel grabbed for his eyes as if Brandon had performed a three stooges eye-rake on LeTravel and went to his coach exclaiming “they are trying to hurt LeTravel”.

The Heat are so easy to hate and really I have no worries because their two leaders  are both just a couple of big babies.

I look forward to seeing Crawford play this year and next year I look forward to him knocking LeTravel out his precious little cradle.


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A few question marks

With the Nats season not having yet started and my personal decision not to lose precious sleep staying up late to watch the Wizards trudge through another long, losing west coast trip ( although they played well in beating Utah a couple of nights ago) and with the Hoyas exiting the NCAA tournament very early AGAIN, and with not NFL because of the lockout, this has turned into a Caps blog.  So be it, although the Nats start tomorrow and now that the Wizards are playing back on local time, I will be tuning in.

Anyway, the Caps lost a game to the ‘Canes that the ‘Canes had to have.  The fact that we got a point was a result of some great stops by Varly and some pretty decent defense although overall, last night was not of our better games in recent memory.  It was nice of course to see Arnie and Ovie back on the ice.  One thing I realize about Arnie is that he is able to play and direct the cycle in our offensive zone brilliantly.  He is able to create space for himself with ease which allows him more time to make deft passes.  Semin again looked to have more jump with Arnie directing the 2nd line and Johannson regained his more dangerous potential as 3rd line center.

Ovie was the typical wrecking ball he was and after the injury to Wideman on what should have at least been a roughing penalty on Carolina, he made it his mission to slam his body into anything skating in white.  There were moments when the Caps definitely controlled the play, pinning Carolina in their own zone 5-on-5 on several occasions while there were also some gaffs on defense which led to some odd-man breaks for the ‘Canes and some other close calls.  The fact of the matter was that aside from the Ottawa game, we played better in all of our road games than we did last night, but we still got a point.

The biggest issue I had last night was the refereeing. They clearly blew a call on the Carlson high-stick which gashed open Staal’s forehead.  That one went in our favor, but then they blew the penalty shot call.  There was hardly any noticeable contact and the call came very late.  Then they gave a big ‘no call’ on the Wideman hit which left him injured ( cross your fingers he’s ok).  Then at the end of the game after calling Semin on a legit penalty, they failed to cross the Carolina player on a clean cross-check on Ovie as he carried the puck into the offensive zone.  It’s as if they were saying, we want the ‘Canes to stay in the playoff race for a little while longer so we’ll call Semin’s penalty, but not the committed on Ovie.

Varly made some great stops last night, including some sprawling pad saves and some other vintage Varly stuff where he glides from side-to-side inside the cage, but the tying goal that he gave up to Skinner was a softy and he knew it.  It reminded me a bit of the softy Neuvy let in against the Red Wings.  Holtby did not let in any softies against the Canadiens – in fact he didn’t let any in at all.  And while the 1st goal last night was clearly not Varly’s fault, I’m sure that softy is sticking in Boudreau’s mind.  My hunch is that Varly gets to play again against Columbus to see if he can really have a great game and then Neuvy will get his shot coming up over the weekend.  I don’t know when Holtby will play again, but you have to figure that if either of these guys get going, Holtby will be the #1 guy for Hershey for the playoffs.

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Holt(by) the phone

Holtby and the Caps' defense closed the door all night on the Canadiens as the Caps beat their foes from across the border for the 2nd time in 10 days, this time in shutout fashion 2-0.

You have to feel good as  a Caps fan to see our team beat the team, that broke our hearts in the playoffs last year, twice in the same road trip.  Both times, we were led by a rookie goalie who is showing more and more that he is not scared of the bright lights, none being brighter than hockey night in Canada against a Montreal team that was very hungry for a win after having been shutout in consecutive games.  Make that three shutouts in a row.

I have written on this blog that I thought there would be no chance that Holtby would be the goalie come playoff time for this team.  And the fact that he beat the Canadians while Varly, our goaltender throughout much of the last two post-seasons, lost to the sorry Senators has got to be playing in the minds of GMGM and Gabby.  The truth of the matter though is that we played much better tonight than we did last night in our 2-0 loss against Ottawa.  Our neutral zone was stifling and we had consistent pressure in the Montreal end due to our forecheck, faster and more precise play and our ability to cause turnovers before Montreal had time to gather steam into our end of the ice.

All four lines played well, but Backstrom was all over the ice and it was fitting that the top line registered our two goals both of which were created by Nicky’s strong legs and wizardry with the stick.  John Erskine was also all over the ice, hitting folks and just playing a tough brand of hockey that made Montreal’s life miserable.

The Caps went 4-2 on the road trip which is pretty great considering that the only weak team was Ottawa and we lost to them.  Every other game, we came out with focus and intensity and got the kind of defensive effort and goal-tending that we will need if we are to see our cup dreams realized.

How can Bruce send Holtby down at this point?  He has an insane record this year and an insane GAA and save percentage.  The team in front of him played an excellent road game by stifling the Montreal attack and limiting them to under 20 shots on the night, but Holtby again made the big stops that were asked of him.  This post-season is really big for the Caps, but especially so for Boudreau who has got to prove to the fans and upper-management that he is the kind of tactician that can lead us deep towards the promised land.  With all that in mind, it would seem crazy for him to start with Holtby, but after a performance like tonight, he has to be considering it.

My guess is that they will give Varly and Neuvy every chance to bounce back, but if they fall flat at all during the home-stand, I would not be surprised to see Holtby be given one more chance to show that maybe he could be the guy.

By the way, the Caps got totally hosed on three big calls in the Ottawa game, one leading to the 1st goal, which although it was hard to see, clearly had to have been kicked to go in considering that the Ottawa player never got his stick on the puck.  The interference/boarding call on Bradley at the end of the game which led to the fight that gave Bradley at least 8 more stitches was also bogus.  Tonight the same referees were calling the game and it seemed like all the close calls went out way in the 1st period almost as if they were trying to make up for the botched job from the night before.  All the same, the Caps deserved the win and are looking good to win the division, something that I really thought was out of our grasp just a little over a month ago.

We have now held our opponents to 2 goals or less in 44 of our 75 games and are 36-5-3 in those games.  Not bad.

Double vision: Nothing can bring a family together like a soccer game and I spent my late afternoon watching Greece play Malta on ESPN3 on my computer.  My daughter and I cheered together “Ela Ellada” (Go Greece) in the waning minutes of the 0-0 game only to find ourselves cheering in exuberance as Greece tallied the winning goal in the last minute of added time to secure a key 2 points in their Euro 2012 qualifying.  My other mother land of Armenia got an impressive tie against Russia to held keep its improbable bid for the Euro 2012 alive as well.

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Pushing back

Some Caps fans watch in the background, amid a sea of disgusting orange and black, as Semin slaps a backhand past the Flyers' net-minder and tallies the game-winner in the Caps' 5-4 shootout victory over Philly on Tuesday night.

The Caps and Flyers finished the season series identically:  Each was 2-0-2 with each team winning once on the other’s home-ice.  Their game Tuesday night was the wildest of the year to this point and reminded me of the 6-5 loss we had against them at the beginning of last season in Philly. The fact of the matter is that I did not expect to win last night’s game and I bet if you asked most Caps fans before the puck dropped, they would have said the same.  Nonetheless, regardless of the circumstances or reasons why, beating the Flyers is always, ALWAYS sweet.

Last night Washington had a hard time controlling the flow of the play, especially for large chunks of the 2nd and 3rd period.   While the announcers pointed to the Flyers forecheck as the reason we lost control of the game, I really think that we lost control of the game because we stopped skating hard in the offensive end and allowed the Flyers too easy access through the neutral zone and into our end of the ice.  Obviously missing all the pieces we were, especially Ovie and Arnie made things a lot worse and I would not want to face Philly in a series with a similar line-up to what we had on Tuesday.

Both teams capitalized on some poor goal-tending and sloppy play in the defensive end.  The Flyers’ goalie let in 2 pretty bad goals on our 1st and 3rd goals and he didn’t seem to even see where the puck was on the 2nd goal.  Neuvy made some great saves throughout the game, but looked a little lost on the Flyers’ 2 and 4th goals, although blame our defense more than him.  Schultz looked bad when turning over the puck on the play that led to Philly’s 3rd goal.

It certainly was neither team’s best effort and it was certainly not “playoff hockey” if you believe in that saying.  But it was a win and a very good one considering the circumstances.  Now the Flyers still have ten games left to our 8, but 6 of the 10 games they play are against teams currently in top 8 in the East and another two are against Atlanta and New Jersey who have a little, tiny bit to play for.  We, on the other hand, have only 2 games remaining against teams in the top 8, and then although we have an upcoming game with Ottawa who has been playing a lot better and two more against Florida who seems to be playing with a spark.  So winning the East is not out of the question and I think while it doesn’t mean a whole lot, I would rather not play Montreal or New York either of which will probably be in the 7th spot.

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March sadness

This is an angry fan writing, angry at seeing my Hoyas flame out again in the NCAA tournament to a team with lesser talent.  And the worst thing about it is, we looked totally lifeless doing it.  Austin Freeman allowed himself to be man-handled by the VCU defense.  No one on the team, aside from Hollis Thompson, could hit a shot. We had not inside game and our defense left VCU with open shots all night.  Once Jason Clark stopped playing excellent defense, he has become somewhat of a liability since I don’t really remember him hitting any big shots since we beat Missouri in OT in December.

And what was our coach doing?  How come no defensive adjustments were made to try to cover up some of VCU’s hot 3-point shooters.  This was reminiscent of the Pittsburgh game where the same 2 guys kept on hitting open 3-pointers all night long.  JTIII should have made some starting directing guys to not collapse the lane on dribble-drives and to stay out on the 3 point shooters since almost every time the VCU point guard took into the lane, he was looking to kick it out.   The same thing happened last year against Ohio, and then three years ago against Davidson and them we didn’t make the tournament two years ago.

I know JTIII is a fixture at Georgetown and me being the kind of guy I am, like the idea of a John Thompson of one kind or another coaching my Hoyas.  But these tournament flame-outs are becoming too much.   It’s one thing to lose in the Final Four like we did a few years ago, but it’s another thing to now even sniff the Sweet 16 like we have the last two years against much worse teams.  I love beating ‘Nova and Syracuse and Pittsburgh and St. John’s, but I also want to win a championship and aside for one year, led by a magical run from Jeff Green, JTIII has not proven that he can get big efforts out of his teams in the biggest of spots or that he can make the coaching adjustments necessary under the biggest of spotlights.

So, I’m mad.  I remember our flame-out against Xavier in 1990 when we were a #3 seed when we had Mourning and Mutombo.  I remember losing to Davidson when we were a #2 seed who had won the Big East regular season.  I remember losing to Providence in the Elite Eight in 1987 and I painfully remember losing to Villanova in 1985.  I remember losing to Florida in the Sweet 16 in 2006, but at least on these last three occassions, our team advance and lost to teams that made the Final Four or were eventual national champs and at least we had advanced fairly deep into the tournament (although the ‘Nova and Providence losses, the ‘Nova one in particular will always haunt any Georgetown fan ’till our last days.)  These last two years however, have been truly unacceptable.

And it’s a shame that Chris Wright and Austin Freeman have nothing better to show for their 4 solid years as Georgetown Hoyas.  They never achieved greatness in an immortal sense or in the sense of anything truly memorable.  We had a great run last year at the Big East tournament which fell short as we did 4 years ago when they were freshman when we lost to Pitt in the finals.  Freeman looked emotionally spent out there and Wright, despite his energy and obvious emotion, was not able to seize control of the game, or even effectively control tempo for a long period of time.  I write this with a critical voice, but I really liked this team, the idea that there were so many D.C. kids on this team and the fact that they were not cheaters and seemed to be good kids.  It’s sad to see these seniors end like Hibbert and Patrick Ewing Jr.’s seasons end, in bitter disappointment at the hands of a  hot-shooting team that the Hoyas were never able to lasso in.

There’s a lot of sadness in those words, but there is a lot of bitterness and heart-break in my psyche. I could see if we lost a heart-breaker at the buzzer, but we have been dominated and blown out and last year it was with a lottery pick, now making a big impact on an NBA team, as the focal point of on our team.  That is bad coaching folks and once again March Madness is exactly that for me, really f@#%in’ mad.

Double vision: Now, all there is left for me is the Caps.  The Caps kind of slept-walk through

IN YOUR FACE: Neuvy repels one of the Devils' 33 shots which he saved over the course of the Caps' 3-0 victory in New Jersey last night.

the game last night.  The only guy who looked awake, and he was WIDE awake, was Neuvy.   It’s like he was thinking exactly what all of us were thinking:  “that last goal against the Red Wings was really soft that you let in”.  Neuvy came out with a vengeance last night, stopping everything and the Caps played opportunistic offense and fairly smothering defense and we had an excellent PK once again.

Knuble has been obviously elevating the level of his game, but I am also pleased to see Ovie continuing his hot play.   Hannan was very good last night and Alzner and Carlson were excellent on both ends of the ice.  The  Caps won a game when they other team played a lot harder.  A lot of that was because of a great goal-tending effort, but a lot of that came from playing with intensity and precision in the offensive zone, sacrificing our body on the defensive end and playing to our strengths and the Devils’ weaknesses as the game wore on .

I watched this game before the Hoyas game so I was in good spirits as I watched the Caps pick up another two points in preparation with their showdown with the Flyers on Tuesday.  The Caps are now 35-3-3 when holding our opponents to 2 goals or less.  That has got to be the best record in the NHL with those parameters.  I gotta find out now.

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I like the fact that 106.7 the Fan has been focusing so much on the Caps of late.  Obviously today Georgetown and George Mason play some very big college basketball games, but the Caps is truly what we have in this town to talk about until the Nats start playing baseball, and after that, the Caps will still be what we truly have to talk about.

Much of the discussion of late has centered around which goalie will be starting for us come playoff time.  Boudreau has said all along that he would know who would be the #1 with about 20 games left.  Well, that idea is obviously out the window as Neuvy played against Detroit on Wednesday night after Holtby was part of another victory, this against Montreal, on Tuesday night.  Some may say, the logical reason to switch goalies against Detroit was because of the Caps having to play back-to-back games.  But I think, if you watch Holtby’s play against Montreal and Chicago, both victories for us granted, you could see his play slip just a little.  His rebound control was a little wild

Hendricks celebrates Knuble's goal against the Habs which provided the ultimate margin of victory, 4-2, on a night which saw the Caps win their 9th consecutive game.

and he got caught out of position on 1 goal in each game. To me, that alone was reason enough to go to Neuvy against the Red Wings.

Neuvy made a lot of saves against Detroit, but it’s clear that the save he didn’t make, in allowing a soft shot to beat him inside, top-shelf, was the play that most people watching that game would take away from the night.  Granted, Detroit is better than any team we had beaten in our previous nine games and they played a strong game.  I think Neuvy was good, but not great and we stayed in the game due to our defensive resilience an opportunistic offense.

I guess what I’m thinking is that we should expect to see Varly play soon and if he gets hot, I think Boudreau will start the playoffs with him.  As we have all seen the last two years, Boudreau trusts him in big spots even though I don’t think Varly played all that great in games 5-7 against Montreal last year.  All Varly needs to do is give Boudreau the slightest glimmer of hope that he is healthy and I bet the Russian will be between the pipes at the beginning of the playoffs. Besides, Boudreau and GMGM have all the confidence in the world that if Varly gets hurt or doesn’t play well that Neuvy can indeed step in and lead the team.  If Varly never gets himself healthy, Neuvy will be the guy and Holtby will back up.  That’s just my gut, but obviously I’m always wrong about whatever I write on this blog and Boudreau has a flare for the unconventional.

Double vision: The Hoyas have entered their last 3 tournaments with very high expectations, being seeded #2 twice and last year a #3 seed.  This year most people are picking them to lose in the 1st round again despite the return of Chris Wright to the lineup.  For some reason, I have a good feeling about tonight’s game.  Maybe we can slip through the cracks and make some magic this March.  On the other hand, I fear for George Mason who everyone is picking to beat Villanova although a Patriots victory would make me very happy on many different levels.

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An Apex on display

Knuble slips the game-winning goal past the Chicago net-minder in the Caps 4-3 OT victory yesterday against the defending champs.

A lot of people who follow sports talk about a team “peaking” at the right time”.  Who knows when that right time is?  The Caps peaked last year in January when they won 14 in a row.  This year they are peaking at the end of the regular season.  Well, not the END end of the regular season, but pretty close.  With only 12 games left, the Caps are now on an 8-game winning streak are ranked 3rd in the NHL in PK and 4th in goals allowed.  While people could complain that our previous 6 victories only featured one game against a top team, Tampa Bay, the last two at home have been against a Carolina team fighting for their playoff lives and against the defending Stanley Cup Champions who themselves had won 8 games in a row.

The truth of the matter is that Carolina outplayed us on Friday night as should have probably come away with at least 1 point in the game.  They dictated the pace of the play and were definitely the aggressors for the better part of the 3rd period, especially after we took a lead.  Holtby was fantastic in that game and as a team, even though we got a call to go in our direction when we got the quick whistle on a shot that Holtby did not control cleanly, we should get credit for being the only team to beat Carolina this year who was trailing going into the 3rd period.

Ovie was great in that game and it is clear that he is peaking at the right time.

Johannsonn has now had two solid games in the row centering the top line.  He fed Ovie a great drop pass on the game-tying goal against Carolina and he did a great job displaying patience in setting up Knuble on his game-winner yesterday against Chicago.   Johannsson is not Backstrom yet, but he is faster than Backstrom and is able to create space for his linemates with his speed and smooth yet sneaky puck-handling ability.  He is able to explode from our own blue-line into the offensive zone with remarkable quickness and really puts defensemen on their heals.

John Carlson played an excellent game yesterday and even though Holtby let in a soft-goal, he continued to make big stops.  I will say

Hendricks nets the game-winner after blocking a shot short-handed an traling Arnie up the ice on a breakaway. The Caps eventually beat the 'Canes 2-1.

that having watched him on his streak that Neuvy still has better rebound control that Holtby in that recently Neuvy has not been giving up any rebounds at all. Everything has been sticking to him.  Not so much with Holtby, but I’m sure he is going to keep playing until he loses.

Unlike against Carolina, the Caps deserved to win yesterday and got our rightful 2 points in what was quite an exciting, intense game.  All four lines dictated tempo in the offensive zone which kept everyone fresh as the game wore on.  While our PK gave up the late 6-on-4 goal, it is clear that it has become the most reliable part of our game which is a great feeling heading into the playoffs.  We had limited PP chances yesterday, but Arnie looks good manning the point with Wideman as was on display yesterday with the rocket he sent into the net to give us a 2-1 lead at the end of the 1st period.

It’s amazing that all of this is happening without Mike Green playing at all and that we were able to generate 4 goals without our top center against a team that won the Stanley Cup primarily because of its defense.  I’m not going to think about the top spot on the Eastern Conference until us and Philly have played the same number of games and frankly, I’m not even sure we want it since we don’t know who will be playing in the 8th spot.  I just know that with our recent play, some of the other top teams in the Eastern Conference must be getting a little nervous.

Double vision: The Hoyas got a #6 seed yesterday, probably because of the upcoming return of Chris Wright to the lineup.  We probably deserved that high, despite our recent losing skid, considering how many tournament teams we had beaten this year.  We haven’t entered the tournament this low for a long time.  Maybe limited expectations garnered from a lower seeding will serve us better.

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