March 19, 2008
A night after taking a 4-2 win over the Preds in Nashville, the Caps are in frigid Chicago to face the Blackhawks. The Caps come into the contest two points behind Philadelphia for eighth place in the Southeast standings, and three points behind Carolina for the Southeast Division lead. Both the Caps and the Canes have eight games remaining.
The win in Music City was only the Caps' second win ever in Nashville, and their first in eight years. Ovechkin had a goal - an empty-netter, his 58th of the season - and two assists to reach 100 points on the season, becoming the first Washington player ever to hit the century mark twice.
Before we get to Chicago, here's a fun excerpt from our Nashville pregame coverage:
I haven't been to Nashville in five years, and the last time I was here was the last time Caps winger Eric Fehr was here, too. Fehr was drafted in 2003, and Nashville hosted that year's draft. While Fehr has been in the Sommet Center before, his skates have yet to grace the surface here.
"It's going to be a little bit of a different trip for me," says Fehr. "Last time I was there was the big draft. Going in and playing in that rink, they've got a team that's fighting for a playoff spot. It's going to be a high-intensity game."
I wondered what Fehr's memories were of his previous trip.
"The first couple of days leading up to the draft, I don't remember anything," he says. "I had interviews with just about every team and I was just in and out and trying to get to my interviews. I didn't get a lot of down time before that, but after I got drafted it was unbelievable to sit down and relax and take in what just happened.
"I'm a big country music fan so that's pretty cool that they have all that stuff around there. All the artists are around the city and you can see them walking around and stuff. That's really cool for me."
If I'm going to listen to country music, it's going to be the old school, authentic stuff. Or alt-country. Fehr is a fan of the newer stuff.
"I like Carrie Underwood, Keith Urban, Tim McGraw, the new stuff," says Fehr. "George Strait."
Quintin Laing was talking about how the tractor on his family farm had an AM radio, and how country music was such a part of the fabric of life in that part of the world.
Fehr has only played in a handful of buildings around the league, and he'll add the Sommet Center to that list tonight. It's unlikely to supplant his current favorite NHL barn.
"Definitely the Bell Centre had both great ice and a great atmosphere," says Fehr. "That's probably the best rink that I've played in so far in my career. I liked Ottawa. I like playing anywhere in Canada. The fans are always great there and those are the teams you watch growing up so those are the cities you like to play in."
Cristobal Huet will be in goal for the Caps tonight, and he will face Nashville's Dan Ellis. Washington captain Chris Clark is still not quite ready to suit up, and the Preds will be without center David Legwand.
Both Nashville coach Barry Trotz and Caps coach Bruce Boudreau held morning meetings with the media here. I recorded both and will send them back to the District for use on caps.com. Trotz is one of the best coaches in the business from a media standpoint, as you'll hear if you take 12 minutes to listen to the clip when it's posted.
Here's the blog entry from the morning of March 19; this is similar to the "Skate Shavings" piece we post every game day afternoon nowadays:
The Capitals' happy traveling crew pulled into our Chicago hotel around 1 a.m. this morning. The Caps haven't been in the Windy City in more than four years, and their stay this time will last less than 24 hours. As soon as tonight's game with the Blackhawks is over, we're off to the airport and Atlanta-bound. I'll get to see my family while I'm here, but this trip is a tease. Hopefully the new NHL schedule gets us back here soon and for longer.
Determined to sample as much local flavor as possible, I wandered into one of my old haunts and listened to some live jazz in the wee hours after our arrival. It was interesting to think that I had gone from Western swing in Nashville to jazz in Chicago in just over 24 hours. Who knows what cultural delights Atlanta holds?
I feel like the Caps didn't play their best last night in Nashville, but they've managed to win two straight while not playing their best hockey. (They don't ask how, they ask how many.) Add those to the two straight they won before that while playing pretty close to their best hockey and the Caps are on the verge of their first five-game winning streak in more than seven years.
They couldn't have picked a better time to do it.
Among the teams in the Eastern Conference who are as hot as the Capitals are right now: Carolina, Florida and the New York Rangers. The Canes are in Atlanta tonight and in Florida tomorrow, the first of three back-to-backs remaining on their schedule. Carolina also has this Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday off in preparation for the Caps' visit to Raleigh on Tuesday.
The Thrashers haven't helped anyone by playing spoiler, so the Caps' eyes will be on tomorrow night's Hurricanes/Panthers game.
Winners of seven straight to tie a franchise record, the Panthers have inserted themselves into the playoff picture. How funny would it be to see three teams from the Southeast Division sneak into the playoffs? It could happen if both Philly (4-3-3 in its last 10) and Boston (3-4-3) keep tumbling down the stretch.
Only eight points separate the top eight teams in the Eastern Conference, and three more teams are within four points of eighth. We may not know any of the first-round playoff match-ups until the season's final weekend. It's making for some thrilling hockey along the way, as we saw last night in Nashville.
I'd expect more of the same tonight in Chicago. The Hawks are gasping and wheezing in their bid for the playoffs, but they've had a great season any way you slice it. They've had a few days to rest up while the Caps are coming in after last night's hard-fought win in Nashville. The Blackhawks realize that they'll need to run the table to get it, but they're young and they've got plenty of fight in them. They won't be playing the doormat the rest of the way.
This morning's skate at United Center was an optional one, but several players made the trek. I had to stay back at the hotel, because we've got a podcast to produce in about an hour. After that, some of us will dine on some Chicago-style pizza for lunch and then head out to the barn.
The Hawks are honoring the great Tony Esposito tonight, and I feel fortunate to be in the house when it happens. He was a rock between the pipes in this city for a long time. Fifteen shutouts as a rookie (tied for second-most ever in a season) and three Vezina Trophies, 423 career wins, eight 30-win seasons (fourth all-time) and enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame.
And this is our game day preview piece for the March 19 game in Chicago:
March 19 vs. Chicago Blackhawks at United Center
Time: 8:30 pm
Radio: 3WT 1500AM, 820 AM and 107.7 FM
Pregame: Capitals Report/Pre-Cap at 2 p.m. on www.washingtoncaps.com
Washington Capitals (36-30-8)
Chicago Blackhawks (34-32-7)
A night after a 4-2 win over the Predators in Nashville, the Capitals visit the Blackhawks in Chicago for the first time in more than four years. Washington brings a four-game winning streak into town, matching its longest winning run this season.
In its last visit to the Windy City (Feb. 15, 2004), Washington blanked the host Hawks, 4-0. That game began a run of four straight games in which the Capitals held their opponents to two or fewer goals. By virtue of Tuesday's win over Nashville, the Caps have now held the opposition to two or fewer goals in four straight games for the first time in more than four years, since the aforementioned stretch that began in Chicago.
Alex Ovechkin continued his assault on the team's record book in Nashville, becoming the first Capital ever to record two 100-point seasons. Ovechkin is two goals shy of Dennis Maruk's single-season team standard for goals in a season (60) and is one power play goal shy of matching Peter Bondra's single-season record (22) in that department.
In Wednesday's game, the Caps will be seeking their first five-game winning streak in more than seven years. No other NHL team has gone longer between five-game streaks, and the Capitals are currently in their longest ever drought between five-game sprees. Washington last put together five consecutive victories from Mar. 3-11, 2001.
Olie Kolzig is scheduled to start in goal for the Caps. He is likely to be faced by the Blackhawks' Nikolai Khabibulin, making his first start since Feb. 20.
The Caps' power play is now sixth in the league with a 19.8% success rate. The Caps have netted at least one power play goal in six straight games and are 8-for-27 (29.6%) with the extra man in those six games. Washington's power play is clicking at a rate of 30.4% in its last 18 games.
As was the case last night in Nashville, Washington supplies Chicago's final non-divisional opposition of the 2007-08 season. And just like the Predators, the Hawks remaining slate of eight games is made up of two against each of the other four clubs in the Central, one at home and one on the road.
This season has been a good one on and off the ice for the Hawks, who had lost their footprint in the Chicago sporting landscape in recent seasons. Although the Hawks figure to miss the playoffs again in 2007-08, they boast an exciting team brimming with young talent.
Rookies Patrick Kane and Jonathan Toews are young cornerstones in Chicago, and both are candidates for the Calder Trophy as the league's rookie of the year.
A pair of ex-Hawk players - general manager Dale Tallon and head coach Denis Savard - have engineered the hockey side of the Hawks' resurgence while Rocky Wirtz - son of late team owner Bill Wirtz - has helped spearhead the team's off-ice comeback.
Since hiring ex-Chicago Cubs marketing whiz John McDonough in November, the Hawks have made significant inroads in regaining their long-dormant fan base and building a new one. The Blackhawks are on the verge of having all 82 games televised next season, a first in franchise history.
After finishing 29th in the league in attendance last season with an average crowd of just 12,727 per game, the Hawks are 21st in average attendance with 16,253 per game this season. McDonough and the Hawks have also welcomed longtime Hawks greats Stan Mikita, Bobby Hull and Tony Esposito back into the fold as team ambassadors.
Prior to Wednesday's game with the Capitals, the Hawks will honor Espoisto, the three-time Vezina Trophy winner who tended goal here for nearly a decade and a half.
Chicago's power play ranks 25th in the league. The Hawks have clicked on 15.6% of their extra-man chances this season. The Blackhawks' penalty killing outfit ranks 17th in the NHL with a kill rate of 81.7%.
Fun Fact: Rookie Patrick Kane leads the Blackhawks in scoring with 62 points. He is trying to become the first Hawks rookie in 78 years to lead the team in scoring. Tom Cook paced the 1929-30 edition of the Blackhawks in scoring with 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists). A 5-foot-7, 140-pound center, Cook played nine seasons in the NHL.
In 1979-80, first-year center Terry Ruskowski led the Hawks with 70 points (15 goals, 55 assists), but he had spent several previous seasons playing in the World Hockey Association.
Center Yanic Perreault has a fractured wrist and is out indefinitely.
Right wing Martin Havlat underwent shoulder surgery and is out for the season.
Left wing Ben Eager has a jammed shoulder and is day-to-day.
Defenseman Brian Pothier has an upper body injury and is day-to-day.
Defenseman John Erskine has an upper body injury and is day-to-day.
Right wing Chris Clark has a groin injury and is day-to-day.
Center Michael Nylander underwent surgery for a torn rotator cuff and is out 3-6 months.
Center David Steckel has a broken finger and is out 2-3 weeks.
POSSIBLE LINE COMBOS and DEFENSE PAIRINGS
16-Ladd, 19-Toews, 52-Byfuglien
12-Bourque, 20-Lang, 29-Williams
10-Sharp, 36-Bolland, 88-Kane
28-C. Adams, 17-K. Adams, 37-Burish
8-Ovechkin, 19-Backstrom, 25-Kozlov
28-Semin, 91-Fedorov, 24-Cooke
43-Fleischmann, 21-Laich, 14-Fehr
87-Brashear, 15-Gordon, 10-Bradley