Ovechkin Nets Game Winner At MSG To Tie Series

  • Monday, April 30, 2012 9:09 PM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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Buckle up for another intense battle in the second round between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. These two teams needed seven games to win round one, and seven games will likely decide this fierce battle. Tonight the Caps held serve and got the split at Madison Square Garden thanks to a game-winning goal by Captain Alex Ovechkin to make the final score 3-2. The series now heads to the Verizon Center 1-1.

There were many question marks regarding rookie goaltender Braden Holtby after a shaky game one. How would the 22-year-old respond to his first bout of adversity in his first playoff experience? It's so important to have confidence in your netminder. With that confidence shaken how would the team respond? Well, Holtby had a strong performance against the Rangers and was back to the same goalie that outdueled veteran Tim Thomas in round one. Holtby is back in a big way and that is good news for Caps fans.

You also need puck luck in the postseason. On Saturday afternoon the Caps hit the iron four times. Nothing went their way. Well, tonight the Rangers banged the post twice, including a Michael Del Zotto rocket near the end of the game that would have tied it up.

Lastly, Ovechkin played arguably the best game of his career in the playoffs. Earlier in the day he was quoted in the Washington Post saying that he needs to make better decisions and be smarter on the ice. That shows self awareness and a new found maturity that's been often lacking in Ovie's career, thus the reputation as having a low hockey IQ. Tonight Ovechkin looked like a man determined, someone serious about his responsibility on this team. When Ovie scored on the power play late in the third period to retake the lead after New York had fought back to tie the game, it lifted the entire team. Everyone seemed to work just a little bit harder. Gave of themselves just a little bit more. And the Caps hung on for the victory.

Ovechkin upped his game. Holtby bounced back. But the Rangers are relentless. They never give up. And plus they are blessed with Henrik Lundquist in goal so they are always assured of being in the game and having a chance. This is going to be a close series that both teams are comfortable playing. It will be tense for Rangers and Capitals fans, but for hockey fans it is going to be another wild ride from two great teams.

Washington Capitals Knock Out The Champs

  • Wednesday, April 25, 2012 8:18 PM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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The Washington Capitals put to bed playoff failures of the past Wednesday by eliminating the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Game 7 at TD Garden in Boston. Joel Ward scored the overtime winner on a rebound off Tim Thomas at 2:57 of the extra session. To beat the Bruins, the Caps needed a rookie goalie phenom in Braden Holtby to come up huge and needed to set an NHL record with seven straight one goal decisions.

For longtime Capitals fans used to being on the losing side of these games, the result is stunning and simply unbelievable. The Caps are just not supposed to come out on top of these types of games. But the script has been rewritten and all the negativity, doubt and dread lifted like a red balloon in the second it took Ward to bury the puck in the back of the net and shock Thomas, the Bruins, their fans, the city of Boston, the National Hockey League and the entire sports world.

There are so many intangibles that decide a season and a playoff series. So many ups and downs. Many Caps fans, including myself, wanted General Manager George McPhee fired after being convinced the season was lost following a few late season collapses. I was 100 percent convinced the Caps would miss the playoffs and that McPhee's offseason pickups were busts. Well, with the most important goal in franchise history, Ward proved the critics wrong. Now McPhee looks like a genius for paying so much for Ward after his excellent postseason with Nashville last year.

And then there is the mid-season coaching change from Bruce Boudreau to former Capital tough guy and franchise hero Dale Hunter. He implemented a more conservative, grinding, defensive style that was very hard for many of the offense-first stars like Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom to adjust to. There were times when the Caps just looked lost out on the ice under the new system. How could this team try to be the mid-90s New Jersey trap defense team? Well, it took until they barely made the playoffs as a seventh seed and drew the defending champs for every player to buy in and boy did they buy in. The Capitals beat the Bruins at their own game. The Bruins kept punching and the Caps kept fighting back, surprising the Bruins. They must have been thinking, "who is this team?" Hunter did what I thought was impossible -- turn a run-n-gun regular season powerhouse and perennial playoff failure, into a team capable of beating the defending Stanley Cup champions.

I also have to mention the selfish move Thomas made when he snubbed President Obama during the Cup celebration last January at the White House. Was it karma that the man who disrespected the nation's first black president was beaten by a black man? There will be many questions in the offseason about Thomas' divisive political statements.

This win was for all the long-suffering Caps fans. Enjoy it everyone. It's OK to smile and relax until round 2.

Yes, we did beat the Bruins!

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Capitals And Bruins Battle To A Game 7

  • Monday, April 23, 2012 7:57 AM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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History was made Sunday night in the first-round series between the Washington Capitals and Boston Bruins. The 4-3 overtime final in favor of Boston marked the first time ever that all six games of an NHL playoff round have been decided by one goal. That's how close it's been, folks. These are two evenly matched teams battling for every inch of ice and for hockey fans and sports fans in general, this is the first-round series to watch.

The Bruins' Tyler Seguin scored in the extra frame to force a Game 7 Wednesday night at TD Garden in Boston. It has been a roller coaster series with everything you expect from two teams that never say die -- hard hits, intense battles on the boards, creative play making, chirping, lucky bounces and great goaltending.

Let's discuss the goaltending for a moment. The Caps' 22-year-old rookie netminder Braden Holtby has come of age in this series. He is mature beyond his years and his confidence and composure against the defending Stanley Cup champions is magnificent to watch. Holtby is the main reason the Caps are in this series, as he has stonewalled the Bruins' relentless offensive zone pressure time and again. Win or lose this series, the Caps have their goalie of the future, and it is a very bright future indeed for young Holtby. And let's give credit to Tim Thomas. Yes, his off-the-ice political statements have tarnished his reputation, but Thomas is still one of the best goaltenders in the league. The reigning Vezina, Conn Smythe and Stanley Cup winner has made some spectacular stops in this series and kept the Bruins in it.

History has not been kind to the Capitals in Game 7s during the Oveckhin era, earning the Caps the unfortunate reputation as choking when it counts the most, of coming up small in the big games. Game 7 losses to the Flyers, Canadiens and Penguins have not instilled the confidence in Capitals Nation that this team will pull off a major upset against the Bruins on Wednesday. On the other hand, Boston has come up clutch in Game 7s. Last year Boston beat Montreal 4-3 in OT and Tampa 1-0 at TD Garden and then defeated the Canucks in Vancouver 4-0 to win the Stanley Cup.

So, the Boston Bruins should be heavily favored to beat the Washington Capitals Wednesday night. Order will be restored. The champs will move on after a scare from a seventh seed and the NHL playoffs can move on without those curious Caps. But maybe, just maybe, Washington can prove the critics wrong and reverse decades of playoff failure that have come to define this franchise. It's unlikely, but crazier things have happened. All it takes is a lucky bounce.

Tim Thomas Throws Another Tea Party

  • Friday, April 20, 2012 10:20 AM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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You would have thought Boston Bruins goalie Tim "Tea Party" Thomas would have learned his lesson about crossing the politics-sports line after he snubbed President Obama by skipping out on the team's Stanley Cup celebration at the White House. The disrespect shown to the Office of the President of the United States of America, his teammates, the Bruins organization that is paying him millions of dollars, and the National Hockey League, was inexcusable.

So Thomas doesn't want to talk about the White House snub with the media. Fine. But then why would he visit the right-wing, anti-government, anti-tax FreedomWorks organization and pose for a picture with a Ron Paul for president bumper sticker? This happened last Tuesday in D.C. between Games 3 and 4 of Boston's first-round series with the Washington Capitals. Of course this picture went viral through social media and stories were written about it. By the way, the chairman of FreedomWorks is controversial conservative Dick Armey.

Thomas is a hypocrite of the highest order. He won't talk to the media about his political views and wants to keep the focus on the ice, but then he pulls this stunt. Maybe if he had been practicing his saves instead of paying a visit to a divisive organization like FreedomWorks, he would have stopped Alex Semin's game-winning goal. Caps fans have been mocking Thomas with Obama signs. Expect more mockery on Sunday.

Shanahan Gets it Wrong With Backstrom Suspension

  • Wednesday, April 18, 2012 7:45 AM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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NHL Chief Player Disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan is having a terrible postseason. He is sending mixed signals about what merits a suspension and what doesn't. Take for example his one game suspension of Washington Capitals forward Nicklas Backstrom for a cross-check to the face of Boston's Rich Peverly at the end of game three.

But before we go there, let's turn back the clock to the slap on the wrist, the measly $2,500 fine issued to Nashville's Shea Weber for one of the dirtiest and most blatantly dangerous plays in the history of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Weber twice purposefully and forcefully slammed the head of Detroit's Henrik Zetterberg into the glass. Luckily, Zetterberg wasn't injured. But how this wasn't a suspension is beyond me. But the fact is that what Weber did was almost criminal and the tape doesn't lie.

Pittsburgh's Aaron Asham was suspended four games for his vicious and potentially lethal cross-check on the Flyers' Brayden Schenn. The tape clearly shows how violent and dangerous the attack was. The two attacks by Weber and Asham were similar in their intent to cause serious harm. But how could Shanahan come away with such vastly different punishments?

Which brings us to Backstrom. Again, the tape doesn't lie. First, Peverly wasn't even close to being injured on the play. Second, Backstrom is not a repeat offender. Third, Backstrom was standing up for his teammate Alex Ovechkin, who had just been tripped by Peverly. Fourth, the Bruins have been employing dirty and unsportsmanlike tactics this whole series by targeting Backstrom's head (Backstrom recently returned from a head injury with concussion-like symptoms and has always suffered from headaches). All this context should have been taken into consideration, plus the fact that clearly what Backstrom did, including the fact that there was a defensive counter cross-check from Peverly, was nothing compared to the violent attacks by Weber, Asham and James Neal.

The inconsistency of Shanahan's decisions this post-season is creating confusion among the players and fans and is beginning to tarnish the league's image. There just doesn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how the league is dishing out fines and suspensions. And it obviously is not a deterrent, as Phoenix's Raffi Torres' sickeningly violent hit on Chicago's Marian Hossa last night demonstrated. Torres left his feet and Hossa had to be carried off on a stretcher.

Really, however, it is the players who need to police themselves. NHL players are supposed to be professionals and there needs to be more respect for the health and safety for their fellow players. That is really the biggest problem right now, is the lack of respect for each other that leads to these recklessly dangerous hits to head.

But Backstrom should not be put in the same category. Regardless, it is just more adversity for the Caps. Adversity has been the theme of the entire season and the Caps have been forced to play without their number one center before. At least the Bruins will have one less head to target.

As Playoffs Heat Up, NHL Aims to Ice Global Warming

  • Monday, April 16, 2012 1:25 PM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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Photo credit: Chealion/Michael J. at Flickr www.flickr.com/photos/chealion

Game three tonight between the Boston Bruins and Washington Capitals promises to be a scorcher. But it is the heat outside of the Verizon Center that could play a factor.

Washington, D.C. and more than 90 other American cities already experienced the warmest March on record. And today temperatures are expected to reach historic highs of near 90 degrees fahrenheit in the nation's capital, which could cause problems with the Verizon Center ice surface. Despite being indoors, a hot day outside can affect ice conditions. Warm weather can soften the ice, making it difficult to skate and control the puck.

But if the game was in Boston it would be no better. Ask the more than 4,000 Boston Marathon entrants who sat out today's race due to the record mid-80s heat wave. It was the second slowest race since 1985 thanks to the blistering heat.

Hockey, more than any other sport, depends on cold weather to keep the ice sheet smooth and hard. That's why the climate change forecasting trends should have every hockey player and fan running to replace their gas guzzler with an electric vehicle. A new study published in the Institute of Physics’ journal, Environmental Research Letters, concludes that because of steadily rising temperatures, by mid-century there might not be any outdoor ice rinks in Canada. Let me repeat that. Climate change could kill outdoor ice hockey in Canada. If that isn't a wake up call then nothing short of Lake Ontario overtaking Toronto will convince skeptics.

Rapidly reducing greenhouse gas emissions to combat climate change is something the National Hockey League takes very seriously. The NHL publicizes its efforts to lower its carbon footprint at its NHL Green Web site, a partnership with the Natural Resources Defense Council. Some recent headlines include a story about New York City's gigantic Stanley Cup fountain that encourages visitors to taste the pure, clean NYC tap water from the Catskill Mountains. The event was part of the NHL's Gallons for Goals initiative, which aims to educate people about the importance of freshwater as a natural resource. Other recent news items include a story about the New Jersey Devils using biodiesel at the Prudential Center and how NHL clubs are honoring Earth Hour by switching-off non-essential lighting for one hour.

And Canada, the spiritual home of hockey, is starting to take climate change action. Perhaps the Harper Administration took notice when a weekend heat wave in late March in Ottawa spawned the capital's first smog day of the year. Ottawa doesn't generally get much smog and certainly not as early as March 19. Whatever the reason, there is encouraging news today from Canada as it was reported that the government is cracking down on heavy duty vehicle emissions. The new regulations for large pick-up trucks, buses and other heavy duty vehicles will by 2020 reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 3 million tons per year.

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Caps Going To Make Bruins Earn It

  • Sunday, April 15, 2012 8:19 AM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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Washington Capitals fans are humble. Crushing defeats (see Pittsburgh 2009), epic playoff collapses (see Montreal 2010) and stunning sweeps (see Tampa Bay 2011) will do that to a fan base. So Caps fans are realistic about the team's chances against the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. They know the battle won Saturday is a small victory in a war that favors Boston. The Caps beat the Bruins in Boston 2-1 in double overtime, thanks to a game-winning goal from Nicklas Backstrom and another brilliant 43-save performance in the net from 22-year-old goaltender Braden Holtby.

The Caps split the first two games on the road, and by doing so made a statement to Boston that they are going to have to earn their ticket to the second round. If anyone thought Boston was going to steam roll over the Caps, the past two games have proven that Washington is mentally and physically tough and is prepared for a long series. But these are still the defending champs. They have been through the hard fought battles. They have won the wars of attrition. They will not back down. And they are still the favorites to win the series.

Win or lose this series, there is a certain pride Caps fans can take in finally watching their team turn into a playoff hockey contender, instead of the regular season powerhouse and playoff pretender of the past few years. There was even a point in the broadcast when NBC commentators Mike Emrick and Pierre McGuire were comparing the Caps' stifling defense to the mid-90s New Jersey Devils. A long way from the run-n-gun Caps of a few years ago, isn't it? Credit for this transformation goes to head coach Dale Hunter, who has instilled a more playoff-type system, and we are seeing the wonderful results of that the first two games. The Caps are dancing with the big bad Bruins, matching their work ethic and intensity, and it is a pleasure to watch. The odds are still very much stacked against the Caps winning this series, but they have shown their fans and the hockey world that they will not go quietly into the night. That they will fight to the bitter end.

Game 3 is at the Verizon Center on Monday night and if the first two games are any indication, it's going to be a whale of a hockey game between two tough teams full of heart and character. This Caps fan can't wait for the puck to drop. Who knew the playoffs could be this much fun?

Will Shea Weber Be Suspended For Zetterberg Head Slam?

  • Thursday, April 12, 2012 8:28 AM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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The National Hockey League playoffs are under way, and the first test of the NHL's more aggressive action in enforcing the rules against hits to the head occurred in the waning seconds of Nashville's Game 1 victory over Detroit at Bridgestone Arena. Preds defenseman Shea Weber, his team shorthanded and clinging to a one-goal lead, slammed Wings forward Henrik Zetterberg's head into the glass twice.

Luckily, Zetterberg didn't appear to be seriously injured by the malicious attack. But regardless, this is a big test for the NHL's head disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan. Does he suspend Weber for one or two games to send a message that pro wrestling moves won't be tolerated in professional hockey? But this isn't the regular season. This is the playoffs where every game matters and the loss of a key player on the blue line for even a game could cost the series for the Predators.

But while Shanahan needs to be aware of the consequences for Nashville, he could also want to send a strong message to the league that these antics simply won't be tolerated. The fact that Weber is a repeat offender could weigh heavily on the decision. Weber was fined $2,500 last October for a boarding penalty on Vancouver's Jannik Hansen.

What makes the head slam even more curious is the fact that Weber is a recent concussion victim. He suffered a concussion this past December after a hit to the head from Dallas Stars defenseman Mark Fistric and was sidelined four games. Now Weber might sit out as the perpetrator instead of the victim. You would think Weber would have learned a lesson about how dangerous hits to the head can be, but apparently not. Weber and his team might pay a heavy price for his unsportsmanlike play Wednesday night.

Caps Clinch Playoff Berth

  • Friday, April 6, 2012 6:58 AM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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What a night in Chinatown. Wow. I was rocking the red with more than 18,000 Washington Capitals fans at the Verizon Center in a must-win game for the Caps in the second-to-last game of the regular season. When the night began, the Caps held a very tenuous lead for the eighth and final playoff spot with Buffalo breathing down their necks. The Caps and Sabres were tied at 88 points with the Caps owning the tiebreaker. The Caps played the Panthers while the Sabres played at Philadelphia.

Many anxious Caps fans were wondering which team would show up. Would it be the desperate team that eked out recent shootout wins against Boston and Montreal? Or would it be the team that laid an egg against the Sabres 5-1 at home and blew a lead late against the Lightning and Steven Stamkos? The Caps started strong with goals by Jay Beagle, Alex Ovechkin and Brooks Laich to take a 3-0 lead and chase Panthers goalie and former Capital Jose Theodore out of the net. Curiously, only minutes later Cats coach Kevin Dineen put Theodore back in the game. A very curious coaching decision not keeping Scott Clemmensen in the game.

Then a freak accident injured Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth as a Panthers player seemed to have fallen on Neuvirth's leg. Neuvirth was in obvious pain as he was helped to the locker room. In a season of adversity for the Caps, this was but another chapter. Number one veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun is already out for the season and now the Caps would have to rely on backup netminder Braden Holtby to keep their posteason hopes alive.

The Cats clawed their way back into the game, and after scoring an early goal in the third period to make it 3-2, Caps fans were nervous given the history of the Caps blowing leads and choking in big time games. The Panthers also have a recent history of taking games into overtime. But 18,000 plus fans at the VC had one eye on the ice and one eye on the out of town scoreboard, so when the Sabres-Flyers game became final with Philly winning 2-1, a thunderous roar came up from the stands and the Caps players definitely noticed.

Did Caps fans will their team to victory? Perhaps. All I know is that the energy in the building was amazing after finding out the Sabres had lost with about seven minutes left in the Caps game and a 3-2 lead. The Caps players seemed to have fed off the energy because they survived some great chances by the Panthers and then Alex Semin scored the biggest goal of his career with a backhand shot top shelf over Theodore's shoulder as four Panthers stood and watched helplessly as Semin worked his magic.

As the seconds ticked down, the Verizon Center was rocking as Caps players saluted the fans at center ice and celebrated an improbable playoff berth in this roller coaster season. Buffalo had a great run and they will be competitive for years to come. But tonight the Caps showed heart and character, two words not usually associated with this team.

Congrats to the Panthers, who also clinched a playoff spot because of the Buffalo loss. On Saturday the Caps have a chance to win the Southeast Division by beating the Rangers at MSG and the Panthers losing to the Hurricanes at BankAtlantic Center in regulation. Either way, the Capitals and Panthers will be dancing into the NHL playoffs.

Here is video of the sights and sounds from the end of the game last night at the Verizon Center as the Caps and their fans celebrated the team's fifth straight posteason berth in the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.

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Washington Votes For Hockey

  • Monday, April 2, 2012 1:25 PM
  • Written By: Josh Marks

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Detroit is Hockeytown, home to the storied Original Six Red Wings franchise and a strong tradition of grassroots hockey. And Washington, D.C. will never be mistaken for Detroit. But the fastest sport in the world has been slowly and steadily gaining a foothold in the nation's capital, largely thanks to the success of the Capitals and star Alex Ovechkin. Although this season has been a roller coaster ride for Caps fans, with the team's playoff hopes coming down to the last few games of the season (the Caps lost a tough game at Tampa tonight), the fact that there are 18,000 plus Caps fans rocking the red at the Verizon Center every game night is a rather new phenomenon in a city and region where the professional football team is number one by a wide margin, followed by high school and college hoops.

The Caps' slogan is "Building America's Hockey Capital," and that is exactly what is happening at the youth hockey level as the number of youth athletes has taken off in the past decade, especially with the addition in 2006 of the Kettler Capitals IcePlex -- the Capitals practice facility built on top of the parking garage at the Ballston Commons shopping mall in Arlington, Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. Kettler offers two ice skating rinks for youth hockey leagues when the Caps are not practicing. The Washington Post recently wrote up a story about how Ovie and the Caps have made playing hockey popular in D.C.

And then there is White House Hockey, which I participate in. For over ten years, pick-up roller hockey games have been played on a stretch of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the Treasury Department building and the White House. This portion of Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House was closed to vehicular traffic following the Oklahoma City bombing and then permanently closed after 9/11. It is now a pedestrian mall filled with thousands of tourists from around the world. Playing pick-up roller hockey on the weekends creates a surreal, only-in-Washington scene where one or two competitive hockey games are being played while tourists, locals and demonstrators pass by on foot, bicycle and even Segway (there is a company that provides Segway tours of the nation's capital). Many tourists stop to snap pictures or take video of the guys playing hockey. There are also frequent disruptions when protesters march to the White House and when vehicles enter the security checkpoint -- U.S. Secret Service and Metropolitan Police Department patrol cars, construction and delivery trucks heading to the White House gates and U.S. Government-plated vans and SUVs. I've even witnessed President Obama's motorcade leaving for church one Sunday morning and got a glimpse of the president in the back seat of the presidential limousine. The hockey games can be casual and fun, or intense and serious, depending on the personalities that show up that day.

Lastly, another sign of hockey growing in the nation's capital is the annual Lawmakers versus Lobbyists charity hockey game at the Verizon Center. The Congressional Hockey Challenge raises money for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund, Fort Dupont Ice Hockey Club and Fort Dupont Ice Arena. Fort Dupont is an inner city ice rink located in the mostly African-American neighborhood of Anacostia. Recently national politics has been a rough-and-tumble activity comparable to a bench-clearing brawl, so the animosity between politicos translates perfectly to hard hitting hockey. This was evident when U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) showed up to the East Room of the White House at a recent event honoring the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. Kerry was sporting a broken nose and two black eyes suffered during a pickup hockey game.

The fact is, no matter what happens on the ice with the Caps this season or future seasons, the foundation has already been laid for a strong grassroots hockey culture in D.C. Recreational ice, roller and street hockey in the nation's capital will continue to grow for years and decades to come.