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Over the Boards: Alzner assesses Capitals' struggles

by Dan Rosen

Washington Capitals defenseman Karl Alzner believes honesty in the face of adversity is the best policy a player and a team can have. Alzner's problem is he doesn't think his team has fully bought into that policy.

"We don't always admit to our mistakes, own up to them and fix them," Alzner told from Prudential Center last Friday. "We just push them under the rug and worry about it later."

The Capitals won't be able to push away their problems anymore.


Any truth to the rumors that Jason Spezza quietly asked for a trade at the deadline and might be moved in the summer? -- @WRHeronkill

I'm not sure about Spezza asking for a trade, but if you remember there were rumors swirling around before the NHL Trade Deadline that the Ottawa Senators were shopping their captain. These were rumors that general manager Bryan Murray did not like, so much so that he squashed them a few days before the deadline by saying he had not had any discussions with any teams about Spezza.

Could Spezza be traded this summer? Most definitely he could be traded this summer. But blockbusters like that rarely leak into the media unless or until they are just about finalized. It's a wait-and-see situation right now with Spezza, but with the season the Senators have had, clearly anything and everything should be on the table.

Who is your dark horse in the Eastern Conference playoffs? -- @thackattack41

If you consider the New York Rangers a dark horse, then I'm going with them. Any team that can avoid playing the Boston Bruins until the Eastern Conference Final looks good in my book, but in particular the Rangers have a swagger about them that I think will benefit them in the playoffs. Unlike earlier in the season, when they thought they should be a good team, now the Rangers believe they are a good team. They have depth, balance and excellent goaltending.

Martin St. Louis and Rick Nash have to perform. That's a must. The Rangers won't go anywhere if those two struggle. Henrik Lundqvist obviously has to be great, but that's a given every night. Ryan McDonagh needs to be healthy, and it looks like he will be. Chris Kreider might not return for a while, but he'll help when and if he does.

Who looks to be the most dangerous four-plus seed going into the playoffs? -- @AronPeters

The seeds, or where teams rank in the conference standings, don't matter under the new division-based, wild-card format. However, I know what you're getting at here, so I won't go into the details of the new playoff format. That information can easily be found on the standings page.

The Los Angeles Kings won't have home-ice advantage, and they currently have the sixth-most points in the Western Conference. They are my answer to your question. The Chicago Blackhawks could be as well, but they still can get home-ice advantage in the first round, so I'm going to leave them out of this discussion for the time being.

The Kings, like the Rangers, have depth up and down the lineup as well as elite goaltending to back it up. Their puck-possession style is what makes them formidable. Adding Marian Gaborik to the top line has been important because he's brought a level of explosiveness alongside Anze Kopitar and Justin Williams that the Kings previously did not have. It also allowed coach Darryl Sutter to bump Dustin Brown to the third line, where he can be himself and be effective.

Will the Vancouver Canucks be better or worse next season? -- @MegaManYVR

Great question, but anybody who says they have the answer is lying to you. No one knows the direction the Canucks are going to take because right now they don't have a leader. Mike Gillis was fired Tuesday, so the Canucks need to get a president and a general manager (it could be the same person) before deciding on what they should do with coach John Tortorella and the roster.

The roster on paper looks to be decent, especially if Ryan Kesler isn't traded. Any GM would love to build around a core that includes the Sedin twins, Kesler, Alexandre Burrows, Kevin Bieksa, Jason Garrison, Dan Hamhuis and Alexander Edler.

Is Eddie Lack the answer in net? Can Jacob Markstrom challenge him? Do the Canucks have any maneuverability with nine no-trade clauses on the roster? The new GM will have to deal with all of it and more, but until he does it's impossible to know which way the Canucks are going to go next season.

Why is Adam Larsson not on the New Jersey Devils full-time? Is it him, or just that they have too many defensemen? -- @jfabrazzo

It's a little bit of both, and the fact that Devils coach Peter DeBoer doesn't seem to have the same amount of trust in Larsson as he does in Jon Merrill or, for that matter, Eric Gelinas, who has been playing forward recently. I can't imagine chief scout David Conte is too pleased about the handling of Larsson. The Devils used the No. 4 pick at the 2011 NHL Draft on Larsson, who is supposed to develop into a cornerstone defenseman for the club. He hasn't. He's not even close.

There's a lot of blame to go around for that, but it's on Larsson to will his way into the lineup, and he hasn't done that. If he doesn't get traded this summer (don't discount that as a possibility), next season will be a big one for Larsson. Development time is over. He needs to give New Jersey some results, but he needs the chance too.

How concerned should St. Louis Blues fans be about the team's recent play going into the playoffs? -- @tjklost1223

I'd say Blues fans should be on alert. Their play of late is alarming. They are giving up more goals than usual, and they seem to be listless offensively. The Blues need to be careful or they will play their way into a first round series against the Chicago Blackhawks. That's dangerous territory.

After heading into the season thinking they could compete with the Pittsburgh Penguins for first place in the Metropolitan Division, the Capitals are now longshots to reach the Stanley Cup Playoffs; they staved off elimination with a 4-1 win Tuesday against the St. Louis Blues and are four points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second and final Eastern Conference wild-card spot with three games left for each team.

The Washington organization has questions to answer as it nears the end of a disappointing regular season and what will likely be a longer-than-anticipated offseason.

Alzner doesn't have the answers for the questions that will be asked. But he does have his thoughts as to why things have gone south for the Capitals.

It starts, he says, with the team's attitude.

"We play good some games, and play tough against the good teams, but the teams that are lower in the standings we take our foot off the gas," Alzner said. "It's almost like we have the swagger sometimes that we're the best team in the League and we can just not play our best. I think it's a mental attitude adjustment that we need to fix."

He also believes that the team does not always play to its strengths.

"We're supposed to be a high-flying offensive team and we haven't really done that," he said. "Our power play has been the only real bright spot this year. But 5-on-5 we just need to be better. I mean, we have to be one of the worst 5-on-5 teams in the League in goals-for vs. goals-against. We've got to be up there."

The Capitals are 24th in the League in 5-on-5 goal differential at minus-22. The Buffalo Sabres (minus-66), Edmonton Oilers (minus-52), Calgary Flames (minus-31), Florida Panthers (minus-32), New York Islanders (minus-27) and Nashville Predators (minus-25) are the only teams with worse 5-on-5 numbers.

Not surprisingly, none of those teams is going to the playoffs.

"It's insane, really just insane," Alzner said. "We don't have the identity. What we're supposed to be, we are not being. That's something that needs to change. I personally am a huge fan of the tight-checking, grind-it-out, 2-1 and 1-0 games, but that's not the way this team is built. If we're not built that way we have to be better for how we're built."

Alzner isn't shirking blame either; he knows he has played a part in the team's struggles, as evidenced by his negative plus/minus rating.

"If you're supposed to be a guy who is scoring all the time, you've got to be scoring," he said. "If you're supposed to be a guy keeping pucks out of the net like me, then your plus-minus has to be better than minus-8. We have to hold ourselves way more accountable than we have this year."

With all of that said, Alzner still believes in the Capitals' talent.

"I don't know whether it's true or not, but I feel there's a good chunk of coaches and/or managers in the League that might like our lineup over some of theirs," Alzner said. "We have a great lineup. We might at times be a little thin on 'D' with injuries and call-ups, but we have so many good players here that I think at the beginning of the year we thought we'd be challenging Pittsburgh for our division. I think other people thought that as well. We're shocked it hasn't come together.

"Maybe that's what we need right now, kind of a shock to the system."

The education of John Moore

Last week, when New York Rangers defenseman John Moore was still sitting out with concussion-like symptoms, he was given an assignment by assistant coach Ulf Samuelsson. Moore had to watch the Rangers' game against the Vancouver Canucks at Rogers Arena from the press box and write down notes about what he saw on the defensive reads.

Moore, who returned the following game against the Colorado Avalanche, focused primarily on the Canucks' blue line as a way to avoid nitpicking his own teammates. He wrote down anything that caught his eye, noting the play and the time it happened.

After the game he handed his notes to Rangers video coach Jerry Dineen, who cut video of the plays noted on the paper so that Samuelsson and Moore could go through clips the next day.

"I wrote down quite a bit," Moore said. "It's little things, split decisions that if you're a half-second late could be the difference between a scoring chance or a good defensive play. This was an opportunity where I wasn't playing, but we could still use the time to get better."

Moore then gave some examples of what he noted.

"On [Daniel] Carcillo's goal, it was a play where the Vancouver defensemen were a little bit softer around the net," he said. "Their goalie had the puck and they came in there and started fishing with their sticks instead of just taking the guy out of the play. So that was a clip and we talked about that.

"I remember there was a dump-in, it went east-west behind the net, the D-man had a chance to close it out and he let his guy walk out of the corner, we seemed it in the slot and it was a scoring chance. What you think might be an innocent play in the corner translates into a scoring chance a few seconds later."

Moore likened his note-taking to a homework assignment. He said he had never done anything like that, but he thinks it has already helped him.

Since Ryan McDonagh is out with an upper-body injury, Moore has been paired with Dan Girardi for the past three games. He said playing with Girardi on the top pair means he has to be more responsible for the defensive end because he's playing against top lines. Moore said his defensive reads have improved since his homework assignment in Vancouver.

"It would have been easy for [Samuelsson] to say just say, 'Get your work in on the bike and we'll see you after the game,'" Moore said, "but for him to take the time to do this, it has definitely helped me a lot."

Cammalleri and the psychology of his hot streak

Calgary Flames forward Mike Cammalleri has 12 goals, including five game-winners, and 10 assists in the past 18 games. That's almost half of his goal total for the season (26) and exactly half his point total (44) in less than a third of the amount of games he's played (62).

Cammalleri got hot after the NHL Trade Deadline passed at 3 p.m. ET on March 5. He was on the block, and as a player in the final year of his contract playing for a non-playoff contender he was considered a sure thing to be traded before the deadline. The only question was where?

Cammalleri never moved. Flames president and acting GM Brian Burke couldn't find a deal worth making. Ever since, Cammalleri has been one of the top scorers in the NHL.

Mike Cammalleri
Center - CGY
GOALS: 26 | ASST: 18 | PTS: 44
SOG: 190 | +/-: -13

Cammalleri wouldn't deny the notion that he's playing better and producing more now because the trade deadline is no longer weighing on his mind.

"There might be something in the subconscious," Cammalleri said. "You practice staying present and trying to really be involved and engaged, but I guess maybe on a subconscious level something hits you about fully engaging about where you are and what's going on."

Cammalleri, though, thinks his hot streak has more to do with how the Flames have played since the deadline (11-7-0, 3.22 goals per game). He also is a believer that eventually things even out, and since he was scoring below his career average (26 goals per 82-game season) before the deadline, he was bound to start catching some breaks after the deadline.

"Even before the trading deadline Cammy was getting tons of chances," Flames coach Bob Hartley said. "Sometimes you go through a tough period and maybe that's what Cammy went through. ... Obviously when you gauge a scorer, well, you're looking at the goals scored and prior to the trading deadline the red light was not going on. Goalies were finding ways to make great saves or he was missing the net by a few inches. Since then, everything is going in. I doubt it's a matter of pressure [from the deadline] because Cammy is a well-seasoned veteran plus he's mentally strong. I don't think he got rattled by this, but right now it's pretty safe to say he's on fire."

Ryder and the frustrations of a cold streak

Like Cammalleri, New Jersey Devils forward Michael Ryder has averaged between 25 and 26 goals per 82-game season in his career, so when he had 16 goals in his first 46 games (a 28-goal pace) he figured he might regress slightly, if at all.

Ryder couldn't have imagined what would actually happen.

He has one goal in 33 games since scoring goals in four straight games from Jan. 4-11. Ryder snapped a 23-game goal-scoring drought on March 20, then has gone without a goal in the past nine games. Ryder has eight assists in the 33-game stretch, so he's barely contributing on the score sheet for a team that signed him to score goals.

"I've had a couple of slumps in my career, but not this dry for this long," Ryder said. "You always wonder what you're doing. Sometimes you get frustrated with it. For a while there I was thinking too much about it and I didn't play other parts of the game. I got away from what gave me success. When you think about scoring too much you lose other things. You stop skating. You lose focus. You concentrate on one aspect instead of the whole picture."

Ryder said he's tried to get away from a single-minded approach, but it's been difficult, especially when he knows the Devils might miss the playoffs because of some goals he didn't score.

"They brought me in to help out offensively and score goals," Ryder said. "When we lose games by one goal you take it upon yourself to help out because you know that's your job. It's frustrating at times. It just gets in your head."


Eric Staal on the future of the Carolina Hurricanes, who haven't made the playoffs since 2009, and what he'd like to see happen:

"Hopefully there will be brighter days ahead. I think there will be. My opinion: To blow this team up would not be the right choice. I think we match up with some of the top teams as far as some of our top-end guys, who are still young. Skins [Jeff Skinner] is 21. Lindy [Elias Lindholm] is 19. Murph [Ryan Murphy] is 21. Jordan [Staal] is only 24. We've got young players that are just coming into their own and getting comfortable. As long as we keep building it forward, they're going to get more experience, be counted on, expect more of themselves, and there will be good times ahead."

Washington Capitals forward Jason Chimera talking about his surprise that the team hasn't been better this season:

"You look on paper, the team we have, and we should not even be close to fighting for a playoff position. We should be fighting for the top of the division. It's one of those things for whatever reason you get off track during the year, look at a lot of points that you could've had that you don't have. I ask myself the question every day and say, 'We shouldn't be in this position.' I've had many conversations with my wife and say, 'We should not be in this position. We should not be fighting for a playoff spot.' With our team we should not be here. It's very hard to believe."

No Worlds this year for Carolina's captain

Rob Blake can save his energy and pass by Carolina Hurricanes captain Eric Staal's name on his list of candidates to play for Canada in the 2014 IIHF World Championship. Blake, who last month was named Canada's general manager for the World Championship, would just be wasting his time.

It's not that Staal is against playing for Canada; that's not the case at all. It's just that after the devastating right knee injury he sustained last year at the World Championship and the repercussions that followed, he feels it's in his best interest to humbly decline the invitation, if it were to come his way.

"Oh, probably not," Staal said when asked if he'd consider going to the World Championship if invited. "Obviously last time around it was frustrating. It ended with a tough injury that made it difficult for my summer, which then made it difficult to start the year, which then made it difficult for me to make the Olympic team. So I think for me my focus is finishing this year strong and having a very, very good summer of training to be ready to go for next year."

Staal was injured when Swedish defenseman Alexander Edler hit him knee-on-knee in the quarterfinals. Edler was suspended for the remainder of the tournament and the first two games of the 2014 Sochi Olympics. Staal's knee wasn't 100 percent until well after this season started.

This and that

* Sean Monahan is the first Flames rookie to score 20 goals in a season since Dion Phaneuf in 2005-06, and the first Calgary rookie forward to do it since Jarome Iginla in 1996-97. Monahan said he didn't start thinking about scoring 20 until he got No. 19 on March 7. He didn't score No. 20 until 12 games later, on March 30.

"It was frustrating there," Monahan said. "I had a couple of games where I had some good nights, but I had that long drought. I was getting my chances, and I guess that's why it was even more frustrating than not getting chances. It was tough, but you have to stick with your game."

* Rangers forward Mats Zuccarello has an NHL record, and it's one that comes with national pride for the Norwegian.

Zuccarello's team-high 58 points are the most in a single season by a Norwegian-born player in League history. The record was previously held by Espen Knutsen, who had 53 points for the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2000-01. Zuccarello has 23 points (six goals, 17 assists) in the past 23 games, including eight over his current five-game point streak after he had an assist in a 4-1 win against the Carolina Hurricanes on Tuesday.

* Anaheim Ducks goalie John Gibson is the youngest goalie to record a shutout in his NHL debut in more than 28 years, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Gibson, at 20 years and 267 days old, made 18 saves in a 3-0 win against the Vancouver Canucks on Monday. Ex-Buffalo Sabres goalie Daren Puppa, at 20 years and 223 days old, beat the Wayne Gretzky-led Edmonton Oilers 2-0 on Nov. 1, 1985.

Gibson is also the first goalie in Ducks history to earn a shutout in his team debut and is the youngest goalie to appear in a game with the team.


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