Washington Capitals Where The Rubber Meets The Road The 2011-12 Washington Capitals started the season with seven straight victories. Just over a month later, they fired their head coach. They’ve been without their best defenseman – a two-time Norris nominee – for most of the season. They’ve been without their No. 1 center – one of the best in the business – for the last six weeks. After winning 20 or more road games in each of the last four seasons, they’ve won just nine of 27 on the road this season. Two-thirds of the way through the season – and less than two weeks shy of the trade deadline – they’re on the outside of the playoff picture looking in. And between now and that Feb. 27 deadline, the Caps will play six games in nine nights, with five of them coming on the road. They believe they’ll have defenseman Mike Green back in the lineup soon, maybe even at some point during the upcoming four-game road trip. They have no idea when or even if center Nicklas Backstrom will be able to return this season. In the next 11 days, Caps general manager George McPhee and his hockey operations staff will have to decide how to handle the team’s personnel as the deadline approaches. Given the ups and downs they’ve witnessed over the last few months, it’s difficult to gauge what direction they’ll take. As usual, McPhee isn’t tipping his hand. “Certainly it has been difficult to get a read on what we are,” he admits. “They just haven’t been together enough to really see them. That team that we had on paper during the summer has been together eight games. So it’s really hard to get that read on what we have.” The Caps were thin up the middle before Backstrom – the team’s leading scorer at the time – went down with a head injury on Jan. 3. Since Backstrom went down, center Brooks Laich has suffered a leg injury that has basically cut his ice time in half. In recent games, the Caps’ top two forward lines have been manned in the middle by sophomores Marcus Johansson (123 career NHL games) and Mathieu Perreault (94 games). “You can miss any player for a couple of weeks,” notes McPhee, “other people will step up. But when you’re missing certain players for months, it’s hard on the team. Because in today’s NHL, you can’t make a trade to fill that hole. Not only are you missing a great player, there is no hope of replacing him. There was a time in our league when you could. You could step up and make a real solid trade for somebody else and fill that hole. But that doesn’t happen anymore.” McPhee managed to get Dennis Wideman (while giving up very little in return) at the trade deadline last season, and Wideman made the NHL All-Star team this season. His presence has taken some of the sting out of Green’s ongoing absence. Can McPhee fill – even partially – his team’s huge hole in the middle in a similar fashion? It won’t be an easy task, and it may require altering the Caps’ traditional trade deadline path of dealing picks and/or prospects for impending unrestricted free agent players from the carcasses of teams left for dead in the playoff chase. In past seasons, the Capitals had those assets as well as salary cap space. This time around, they’ve got the assets, but precious little cap space. “There are always ways to do things if you get creative and sharpen your pencils,” says McPhee. “We do have good assets to move. But we have to understand that we’re right back here in September again, too, and those assets would look good in our lineup. We have to be careful about what we do moving forward at this point. “There is a lot of uncertainly out there with other clubs as far as what they’re going to do. It’s going to come down to a couple days right before the deadline before teams really know what they want to do. We’ll have to wait until then to find out what’s going to take place.” Rather than targeting impending UFA talent for picks and prospects, maybe the Caps can make a “hockey trade” and move out some talent and salary at one position for similar talent and salary at another. “That is certainly a possibility,” says McPhee. “But really the way to go about it is to identify what your club would need, what the price is and then figure out how you would do it. That’s the process for us. There are ways. If we really need something bad enough, we’ll find a way to get something done.” Washington won its fourth straight game the night Backstrom was injured, running up its longest winning streak since that season-opening seven-game run. Since then, the Caps are 7-8-3. They’re a sub- .500 team (21-22-5) since opening the campaign with seven straight wins. There are lots of questions. How far can the Caps expect to go in the playoffs without a healthy Backstrom? What are the chances of Backstrom being healthy by playoff time? How smart would it be to go all in on this team without a healthy Backstrom? If they believed Backstrom was able to return at some point before or during the playoffs, would it make sense for the Caps to add a center at the deadline to strengthen the club at that position? And if so, what would it cost? There aren’t many answers right now. While the events of the next 11 days could make things clearer, it could also make things muddier. “It’s hard to say,” says McPhee of the team’s rugged upcoming schedule. “We could win all six, and everybody around us wins all six. We could lose all six and everybody around us loses all six. I really don’t like creating artificial deadlines [and say], ‘If this or that happens, we’ll do this or that.’ “They’re important games, they’re big games on the road for the club, great challenges for the club. As a hockey player, this is what you look forward to, the big challenges. It may seem a bit daunting because five of six are on the road. But if we win a bunch of them, it would be great for this hockey club.” Perreault has played well for the last month, totaling six goals and 10 points in his last 10 games in what has been the most consistent stretch of his brief NHL career to date. “If you lose a guy like Backstrom,” says McPhee, “other people have to play more. We’re really happy with the way Matty Perreault has come along. He’s gone from being a part-time player all over the lineup to a regular NHL player. He’s doing a good job. If Nicky comes back, I just think we’re stronger at center ice. Brooks will get better. Johansson has come along and Perreault has come along. “Actually center ice could be in good shape. But it all depends on Nicky, and we’re not going to be able to replace a guy like that. “It’s a big factor. We’re not going to make any decisions at this point on what we need to do. We’ll see where he is in 10 days and try to come up with a plan on how to make the team better.” Less than two weeks away from the deadline, it has been mostly quiet on the NHL trade front. Few deals have been made, none of much significance. More impending UFA players have received contract extensions that would appear to take them off the market than have been moved. “You just never know in our business what is going to transpire,” notes McPhee. “It could be a real frenzy at the deadline or it could be quiet. Trying to speculate has been worthless in the past. Obviously all the managers are talking pretty consistently. My sense in talking to other managers is that they don’t feel there isn’t a lot going on right now and it’s all going to transpire pretty close to the deadline.” McPhee has been through the deadline routine every year now since 1998, sometimes as a buyer, sometimes as a seller and sometimes playing a pat hand. There is always pressure to do something, anything, from the fans, the media and from ownership. “The pressure is never not there in this business,” McPhee states. “It’s either there to make the playoffs, or it’s there to make a great club a Stanley Cup contender. Whether you’re picking first in the draft or last in the draft, you have to find a player. “The pressures are always there and we learned a long time ago how to live with it and how to manage it. We’re always trying to make the club better, short-term and long-term. We’ve certainly gotten used to pressure. It doesn’t force you to do one thing or another and what outsiders say doesn’t force you to do one thing or the other. You do what you think is best for the hockey club. “[Caps president] Dick Patrick has often said so wisely, ‘The only pressure you should ever feel is the pressure you put on yourself.’ And that’s the way we’ve operated.” As frustrating as this season has been, the team won 10 of the 11 games in which both Green and Backstrom were in the lineup. When this club was put together last summer, more than a few members of the hockey media believed it was capable of competing for the Stanley Cup. “We believe in the team,” McPhee declares firmly. “There is no doubt about that. This is a solid hockey team. Hopefully it’s a team that’s going to get much better here in the next few days if Mike [Green] joins the lineup. He brings an element on the blueline that we haven’t had all year and that most teams don’t have. “We believe in this hockey club. Whatever we do is always to make the club better and should be always be a message to this hockey club – whether we do a little or a lot – that we believe in them. This is a good team. This team could do real well. We just have to play a little bit better.” Playing a little bit better needs to start now. These next six games are key, and many of them are against teams the Caps are chasing or against teams still chasing them. “I think we understand what our team needs and what we have to do to improve,” says McPhee. “With respect to moving forward, I think we know the club pretty well and what we have to do to make our club better. “No deal is better than a bad deal. We’re not doing bad deals.” We’ll see how it all plays out in 11 days. And six of those days will be game days. Washington Capitals Mike Knuble hoping Friday marks return to Capitals lineup By Katie Carrera Mike Knuble was skating on the third line with Brooks Laich and Matt Hendricks in practice on Wednesday, and it’s possible that the veteran right wing may be back in the lineup Friday against the Panthers. Of the 21 players on Washington’s active roster, there are 12 forwards and the team could recall an extra from Hershey for the road trip as insurance. Hunter wouldn’t divulge whether the team planned to bring up someone from the Bears, though. Hunter also didn’t offer any insight on whether he intended to play Knuble after scratching him for three straight games, saying, “we’ll wait to see what happens” when asked about the alternate captain’s status. Knuble said one practice doesn’t guarantee anything. “It’s between here and Friday, you don’t know,” Knuble said when asked if he thought his placement in the workout was a signal that he would play. “If it is, it’s a chance to play and try to stick in there. It’s always a great opportunity to play and the ball’s in your court after a while, so you get a chance to play, maybe.” Knuble, who on Tuesday said he might be forced to consider a trade if he continued to be a healthy scratch, also said he wanted to put an end to the discussion about his absence from the lineup. “It’s already gone on too long,” Knuble said. “I don’t really have anything else to say about it. Just want it to end, said your piece and there’s no need to carry on.” Washington Post LOADED: 02.16.2012 Washington Capitals Mike Green ‘skating well’ in first full session By Katie Carrera Mike Green was on the ice for the entirety of the Capitals’ practice Wednesday, which stretched over an hour, marking his first time through a full session with his teammates since undergoing sports hernia surgery. While it’s still unclear when exactly Green might be able to return to the lineup, his participation in the normal practice taking part in all drills including power play work is a good and welcome sign. Coach Dale Hunter said that the team had not yet decided whether the defenseman will travel with the team Thursday when it flies to Fort Lauderdale for the beginning of a critical four-game road trip. “We’ll see tomorrow morning how he feels,” Hunter said. “I thought he looked pretty good. He’s skating well. We worked him on the power play and he moved well up top, he looks good but we have to wait and see tomorrow. When he says he feels that he can [play], he gets conditioning back and strength in his lower body. [When] he says he’s ready to go and [head athletic trainer Greg Smith] does too we’ll be ready.” Given that the beginning of this road trip is a set of back-to-back games against the Panthers and Lightning and Green hasn’t played since Jan. 7, it doesn’t seem likely that he would play in both of those games Washington Post LOADED: 02.16.2012 Washington Capitals Olie Kolzig on Capitals Coach Dale Hunter’s no-nonsense style By Katie Carrera On Tuesday, two Capitals spoke out about their frustration with recent decisions made by the coaching staff. Veteran winger Mike Knuble voiced his displeasure with being a healthy scratch for three consecutive games and 23-year-old goaltender Michal Neuvirth was disappointed that the staff didn’t communicate with him and let him know he wouldn’t be starting on Monday against San Jose. When associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig spoke with reporters on Wednesday, he was asked whether the Capitals as a group will need to adjust to Coach Dale Hunter’s blunt approach. Kolzig, who played with Hunter for parts of eight seasons, said Washington’s bench boss doesn’t care whether his decisions make him popular. His full comments follow. “He’s old school, no-nonsense kind of guy. He gave up a pretty lucrative, successful stint down in London to chase the one thing that’s eluded him is a Stanley Cup,” Kolzig said of his former teammate. “He’s coming in here, he’s got nothing to lose. He’s only got a one-year contract, he wants to do everything possible to put the team in a position to win a Stanley Cup — sometimes you make decisions as a coach that are unpopular. “Fortunately, I’m the goalie coach so I don’t become unpopular quite as often as Dale does,” Kolzig continued. “That’s part of the position. As popular as he was as a player... he goes by a certain philosophy. “As a coach, you’re going to bruise some egos, going to hurt some feelings but that’s what he believes in. If that’s what it’s going to take to get this team close to winning a Stanley Cup, I think at the end of the day if that happens all those unpopular decisions will all of a sudden look pretty smart.” Washington Post LOADED: 02.16.2012 Washington Capitals Olie Kolzig: Alex Ovechkin needs to ‘not get wrapped up too much in the rock star status’ By Katie Carrera Capitals associate goaltending coach and fan favorite Olie Kolzig was in town on Wednesday and after working with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth on the ice in practice, he spoke with reporters about a number of topics. Kolzig addressed Neuvirth’s frustration at not starting against San Jose and the trials of being a young goaltender, Dale Hunter’s decisions as a coach (more on both of those to come) and how he’s seen Alex Ovechkin evlove from when he began his career to now. Part of the reason the Capitals captain has struggled, Kolzig suggested, is that he may be “wrapped up too much in the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.” Kolzig’s full comments are after the jump: “I think a lot is frustraton,” Kolzig began. “Obviously he’s not scoring at the clip he’s accustomed to. Part of that is not having Nicky Backstrom in the lineup. Alex — and I think I’m seeing it a little more with Dale behind the bench – Alex was getting away from playing the hard, no-nonsense, honest type of hockey, exuberant hockey that he displayed the first three years that he was in the league. “I think that’s what endeared him to everybody. Then all of a sudden he was the same Alex, he was celebrating certain ways and what endeared him to everybody now made him look like a villain. “So, I think part of it is he’s feeling a little not as loved as he used to be, he brings that on himself sometimes,” Kolzig continued, “But I think obviously missing Nicky, it hurts. Teams have kind of kind of got a handle on him, maybe how to close the gap on him and not allow him to score those fantastic one- on-one goals that he used to score. “For Alex, it’s a work ethic,” Kolzig said. “He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.” Washington Post LOADED: 02.16.2012 Washington Capitals Why the Capitals have no room for error By Neil Greenberg STATISTICAL ANALYSIS | Sometime in the early 80s, Bill James of “Moneyball” fame noted that a baseball team's true strength could largely be determined more accurately by looking at runs scored and runs allowed than by looking at wins and losses. To be more specific, he found that one can predict future win-loss records more accurately using only past runs scored and runs allowed, as opposed to using only past wins and losses. Here is the formula, known as the Pythagorean win expectation: Runs for^2 divided by (Runs for^2+ Runs against^2). The same can be said for hockey using goals-for and goals-against. For example, when the 2009-10 Washington Capitals scored 318 goals and gave up 233, using the Pythagorean formula we could expect them to win 53 games. They won 54, or 65.9 percent of their games. Capitals Actual wins GF GA Expected Wins Difference 2009-10 54 318 233 53 1 2010-11 48 224 197 46 2 2011-12 28 156 160 27 1 We can also use this win expectation to figure out the likelihood that one team beats another in regulation. I will spare you the gory mathematical details, but it is based on a method called Log5, published by Bill James in the 1981 Baseball Abstract. Using this, if Washington goes up against a team like the Florida Panthers, who have a .530 expected win percentage at home, we can determine that Washington's chance of winning that game is 36.4 percent. If a team is given a 30 to 40 percent chance of winning, it wins on average 35 percent of the time. If the team has a 60 percent or better chance, it wins 61 percent on average. Here are Washington's expected win probabilities for the rest of the season: GP H/A Opponent WSH Win% 57 @ Florida Panthers 36.4% 58 @ Tampa Bay Lightning 33.8% 59 @ Carolina Hurricanes 41.0% 60 @ Ottawa Senators 45.9% 61 Montreal Canadiens 63.0% 62 @ Toronto Maple Leafs 38.1% 63 New York Islanders 74.6% 64 New Jersey Devils 64.0% 65 Philadelphia Flyers 55.7% 66 Carolina Hurricanes 73.2% 67 Tampa Bay Lightning 78.7% 68 @ Boston Bruins 21.6% 69 Toronto Maple Leafs 59.5% 70 @ New York Islanders 43.9% 71 @ Winnipeg Jets 30.4% 72 @ Chicago Blackhawks 27.7% 73 @ Detroit Red Wings 13.3% 74 @ Philadelphia Flyers 35.7% 75 Winnipeg Jets 77.5% 76 Minnesota Wild 71.5% 77 Buffalo Sabres 80.3% 78 @ Boston Bruins 21.6% 79 Montreal Canadiens 63.0% 80 @ Tampa Bay Lightning 33.8% 81 Florida Panthers 67.5% 82 @ New York Rangers 21.9% This shows that there are likely 10 wins and 11 losses remaining. That would put the Capitals’ record at 38-34-5 (81 points) with five games as “toss-ups.” These probabilities do not take into account the return of Nicklas Backstrom or Mike Green, nor any deadline deals that are made between now and Feb 27. However, if 92 standings points are needed to get in the playoffs, the margin of error is razor thin no matter what the future holds for the roster. Washington Capitals Mike Green on the ice for Capitals’ practice By Katie Carrera After two lengthy workouts earlier this week, Mike Green is on the ice with the rest of the Capitals and taking part in a regular practice for the first time since undergoing sports hernia surgery back on Jan. 17. Green, who is nearing a return to the lineup, told reporters on Tuesday that he feels healthy for the first time in a long time. The defenseman has only appeared in 10 games this season, though, and knows he can’t rush his rehabilitation. General Manager George McPhee recently estimated the defenseman could be back next week and maybe even as early as this weekend. In addition to Green, all 21 players on Washington’s active roster are on the ice for practice. Check out the lines after the jump: Forwards Ovechkin-Johansson-Brouwer Chimera-Perreault-Semin Hendricks-Laich-Knuble Beagle-Halpern-Ward Defense Alzner-Carlson Schultz-Wideman Hamrlik-Orlov Erskine-Green Goal: Vokoun, Neuvirth Washington Post LOADED: 02.16.2012 Washington Capitals Olie Kolzig: Alex Ovechkin needs to get less wrapped up in ‘rock star status’ By Stephen Whyno Alex Ovechkin is the only rock-star athlete in Washington. He’s the most popular player in the world, makes $9 million and drives a sharp, black Mercedes sports car. He used to routinely score 50 goals and celebrate so many of them with enthusiasm, like his “hot stick” routine from 2009. But this season he’s on pace for just 34 after scoring 32 last year. Ex-teammate and current Capitals associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig shared his theories on Ovechkin’s struggles Wednesday, and he didn’t hold back, talking of frustration and much more. “For Alex, it’s a work ethic,” Kolzig said. “He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock-star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.” Kolzig and Ovechkin were teammates for three years, all of which came before the star left wing’s 13- year, $124 million contract extension. Kolzig’s insight into Ovechkin was refreshing in its candor. “Alex was getting away from playing hard, no-nonsense, honesty type of hockey — exuberant hockey — that he displayed the first three years that he was in the league. I think that’s what endeared him to everybody,” Kolzig said. “Then, all of a sudden, he was still the same Alex; he was celebrating a certain way. And what endeared him to everybody now made him look like a villain. “Part of it is he’s probably feeling not as loved as he used to be. So he brings that on himself sometimes.” Kolzig said playing without Nicklas Backstrom hurts, too, but pointed out that maybe other NHL teams have indeed figured out Ovechkin. “Teams have kind of got a handle on him on maybe how to close the gap on him and not allow him those fantastic one-on-one goals that he’s used to scoring,” Kolzig said. Kolzig, making an appearance in town to work with Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun, talked mostly about goaltending during his 14-minute meeting with reporters, but in addition to Ovechkin he addressed Dale Hunter’s coaching style. “He’s an old-school, no-nonsense type of guy and he gave up a pretty lucrative, successful stint down in London to chase the one thing that’s eluded him — and that’s a Stanley Cup. He’s coming in here — he’s got nothing to lose,” Kolzig said. “He’s only got a one-year contract and he wants to do everything possible to put the team in position to win a Stanley Cup. Sometimes you make decisions as a coach that are unpopular. … “And as a coach, yeah, you’re going to bruise some egos and hurt some feelings. But that’s what he believes in, and if that’s what it’s going to take to get this team close to winning a Stanley Cup, then I think at the end of the day if that happens all those unpopular decisions will all of the sudden look pretty smart.” Washington Times LOADED: 02.16.2012 Washington Capitals Capitals to raise season-ticket prices next season By Stephen Whyno This might not be the timing the Washington Capitals wanted, but in an email sent to season-ticket holders on Wednesday night, owner Ted Leonsis indicated most will pay more next year. The Caps have fared well at Verizon Center (19-8-2) this season but are currently outside the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference (28-23-5 overall) and amid a three-game losing streak. That’s a far cry from preseason Stanley Cup expectations. “Most of you will see a change, an average increase of about 8%. Some seat prices have changed more than others, while some have stayed the same and a few seating areas actually have decreased in price. I realize no one wants to pay more, but our season-ticket pricing has been moderate when compared with others around the league,” Leonsis wrote in the email, obtained by The Washington Times. “Without knowing every team’s 2012-13 individual ticket prices, we estimate that our average ticket price will be in the middle of the pack. More importantly to you, however, our season-ticket pricing will be in the lower half of the league.” The Caps had a season-ticket renewal rate of 98 percent for 2011-12 after 97 percent for 2010-11. It’s likely that the next two months will go far toward determining how high that number is for 2012-13. Washington hasn’t missed the playoffs since 2007. “It certainly has been an interesting and challenging year from the outset, but I guess that’s what makes sports such an exciting and unpredictable entertainment option,” Leonsis wrote in the email. “Despite some unforeseen circumstances, I’m seeing signs that our team is beginning to adhere to Coach Hunter’s style. It’s not easy to implement new voices and significant changes during the season, but Dale’s philosophy is sinking in, and soon it will become second nature for our players.” Many fans expressed happiness about proposed NHL realignment, which would have meant more games against the Penguins, Flyers and Rangers and fewer against the Lightning, Panthers and Jets. Because the NHL Players' Association did not provide consent, the current format will remain in place for 2012-13. Green practices Mike Green skated as part of a full practice Wednesday, his first time doing so since Jan. 17 sports hernia surgery. “I’ve got to get my lungs back, but overall I felt good,” the defenseman said. “Another day that’s in the right direction, and we’ll go from there.” Green admitted feeling the after effects of his groin surgery still, but this represented significant progress. “You definitely feel it, but as far as strength and durability, it’s strong,” he said. “That’s all that matters.” Coach Dale Hunter said no official decision had been made on whether Green will go on the Caps’ upcoming road trip. The team leaves for Florida on Thursday afternoon, and Green figures to be on the plane then. Knuble done talking Mike Knuble made some rather pointed comments Tuesday about wanting to play, following three straight games as a healthy scratch. But by Wednesday, the respected 39-year-old veteran was skating on a line with Brooks Laich and Matt Hendricks and not in the mood to talk any more. “It’s already gone on too long. I feel like it’s a little bit too dramatic,” Knuble said. “I don’t really have anything else to say about it. I just want it to end. You’ve said your piece, and it doesn’t need to carry on. Consider this the end of it, then.” Barring other roster moves, Knuble will play Friday night at the Florida Panthers, but that’s far from a certainty. “Between here and Friday, you don’t know. If it is, it’s a chance to play and it’s a chance to try and stick in there. It’s always a great opportunity to play,” Knuble said. “The ball’s in your court after a while, you know? Until you get a chance to play, maybe. Who knows what’s going to happen between now and Friday. I mean that’s the way you have to look at it — just be prepared either way.” Ice chips Associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig was on the ice for Wednesday’s practice, spending time afterward working with Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth. “Simple goalie drills. Nothing special. Just focusing on the little things and trying to get myself better,” Neuvirth said. … Hunter said Wednesday afternoon that no decision had been made yet about recalling another forward for the upcoming four- game road trip, but that seems likely given that the Caps have just 12 healthy ones on the roster Washington Times LOADED: 02.16.2012 Washington Capitals WHYNO: Uncertainty between the posts leaving Capitals’ goalies on edge By Stephen Whyno Michal Neuvirth was the Washington Capitals’ starting goaltender in the playoffs last season, and this year’s No. 1, Tomas Vokoun, was out with the flu. So as the only healthy goalie around, Neuvirth figured he’d start Monday night against the San Jose Sharks. Instead, the Caps called up Braden Holtby from the minors and gave him a start, dealing another blow to the 23-year-old Neuvirth in a season during which he is already struggling with subpar stats. Coach Dale Hunter’s blunt answer when asked about Neuvirth’s confidence said it all. “It’s one of those things where if [Neuvirth] was standing on his head every night, would Braden be playing? No,” Hunter said. “So it’s always judged on how you play.” That was just the latest example of the Caps’ mismanagement of goalies, a troublesome trend that has appeared at just about every turn this season. Even forgive the Caps on July 1 for declaring the kids were all right — that Neuvirth and Holtby, 22, were going to be their tandem this year. Vokoun came at too good of a price to pass up, a one-year deal for $1.5 million. But then-coach Bruce Boudreau went out of his way from development camp in mid-July through training camp in September and October to say Vokoun deserved the “respect” of being the Caps’ No. 1 goalie. The day before the season rolled around, and Vokoun laughed off a question about being nervous opening night because, as it turned out, he wasn’t actually playing. His agent, Allan Walsh, said at the time the move could “certainly be perceived as a slap in the face.” In early December, with Vokoun returning to South Florida to face his former team, the Panthers, for the first time, Hunter decided to start Neuvirth. The 35-year-old Vokoun remarked that day he’s a “paid employee” not making those kinds of decisions. Neuvirth allowed all the goals in a 5-4 loss. In the past two months, the goaltending has been better than “solid,” the word Hunter used to describe the play of Vokoun and Neuvirth. Since center Nicklas Backstrom went out of the lineup with a concussion, the Caps have gone 7-8-3. Of those seven victories, four have been shutouts. All too often, the Caps have needed their starting goaltender to stand on his head. Or they don’t win. Vokoun grasps that during a season that has been far from perfect. “You’re always going to go through periods when things are not going your way or you don’t get to play or something,” Vokoun said. “It’s part of being a hockey player to learn how to deal with it and obviously succeed no matter what. As long as you perform, nobody can keep you out of the lineup.” Perhaps the bar for performing is set unreasonably high. The Caps’ .908 save percentage is in the middle of the pack leaguewide, and though Neuvirth’s numbers — .894 save percentage and 3.07 goals-against average — look bad, the play in front of him has often been the cause. “I think he’s had some pretty good games for us. I don’t think we’ve been helping him out that much. We went through quite a long stretch — we still are — of not helping out the goalies a whole lot,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “[Opponents are] getting a lot of shots, and he’s been the victim of a couple bad breaks as well. It’s hard. I can only imagine how hard it is for a goalie to be in and out, in and out, and be expected to play as a starter and get those starting numbers.” Neuvirth seemed to take Monday’s miscommunication hard. And it wasn’t even a late decision. Although he didn’t know until arriving at Verizon Center that Holtby was starting, others around the team knew in the morning. A video discussing Holtby as the starter shown on the arena’s video boards before faceoff was filmed in the morning. Hunter, meanwhile, explained that he didn’t tell Neuvirth until later because the coaches were still “debating” the situation. “At least if I knew Holtsy was going to get the start, but, you know, no one told me, so I was getting prepared for the game,” Neuvirth said. “And when I show up, found out I was not playing - it was tough to swallow.” Associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig was at practice Wednesday and shared a story about a similar thing happening to him in February 2001, when then-Caps coach Ron Wilson decided just minutes before a game at the Colorado Avalanche to start Craig Billington instead. Though Kolzig was an established veteran at the time, he wants Neuvirth to build off his strong performance in a 3-2 loss to the Rangers on Sunday rather than dwell on Monday’s disappointment. “I’ve been through it and it’s all about how you respond afterwards. I’d be more worried if he was OK,” Kolzig said. “I actually like the fact that it bothered him and that he was upset, and hopefully he can use that disappointment as a positive type of motivation.” But analyst Justin Goldman of the Goalie Guild made the point that this season-long series of mind games with goaltenders can be “concerning” moving forward. “If you’re a goaltender, you thrive on routine. You want to know what the decisions are, as far in advance as possible, so that you can prepare mentally and physically,” Goldman said. “If you’re blindsided by something, all of a sudden you are forced as a goaltender to go through certain emotional things that otherwise you wouldn’t have to go through.” All too often this season, the Caps have blindsided their last line of defense. And goaltenders are at their best when on edge in the crease not knowing what’s coming next — not when they’re on edge waiting for the next questionable decision. Washington Times LOADED: 02.16.2012 Washington Capitals Is Ovi wrapped up with 'rock star status'? February 15, 2012, 1:00 pm As a former Capitals teammate, Olie Kolzig watched Alex Ovechkin burst into the NHL with 163 goals in his first three seasons. Now, the Capitals' associate goaltending coach wonders if the 26-year-old Russian is too caught up with his "rock star status" and has forgottten what made him an NHL star. Speaking to a small group of reporters, Kolzig said Ovechkin, who is on pace for 34 goals and 65 points, needs to rekindle the enthusiasm of his youth if he wants to return to being one of the game's top players. “For Alex, it’s a work ethic," Kolzig said. "He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much with the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.” Kolzig said the absence of top-line center Nick Backstrom (concussion) has had a negative impact on Ovechkin's production, but believes a drop in work ethic has also contributed to the drop-off. "Obviously, he's not scoring at the clip he's accustomed to," Kolzig said. "Part of that, obviously, is not having Nicky Backstrom in the lineup. You're seeing it a little more with Dale [Hunter] behind the bench, but Alex was getting away from playing the hard, no-nonsense, honest, exuberant type of hockey he displayed in the first three years he was in the league. I think that's what endeared him to everybody. "Then, all of a sudden, he was still the same Alex, he was celebrating [goals] certain ways and what endeared him to everybody now made him look like a villain. So I think part of it is he's feeling not as loved as he used to be. He brings that on himself sometimes. Teams have kind of gotten a handle on him to close the gap on him and not allow him those fantastic one-on-one goals he's used to scoring." Ovechkin acknowledged he needs to play better if he hopes to lead the Capitals to a fifth straight Southeast Division title. "I have to lead the way," Ovechkin said. "I have to play much better than I'm playing right now. If I do that, everybody will do it." Washington Capitals Kolzig addresses Neuvirth's concerns Capitals associate goaltending coach Olie Kolzig has been there before. He knows exactly what 23-year- old Michal Neuvirth was feeling when the team recalled Braden Holtby from Hershey of the American Hockey League on Monday to start ahead of him. It was “tough to swallow,” Neuvirth admitted the day after sitting on the bench for the San Jose game. He had figured with veteran goalie Tomas Vokoun ill with the flu, the spot was his for the night, only to learn later in the day that wasn’t the case. But dealing with that disappointment is all part of developing into a reliable goalie in the NHL. “I’m sure in the back of his mind, [Neuvirth] assumed he was going to play, as did a lot of people, against San Jose, and for whatever reason they wanted to see Braden play, and they decided to start him, and that’s just the life of an athlete,” Kolzig said. “In the ideal world, we’d all like to know beforehand, but it’s not an ideal world.” And that can be the toughest lesson of all to absorb. Neuvirth has noted several times this season that it’s difficult not seeing the organization’s goalie coaches on a regular basis. Kolzig lives in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area and travels to the two minor league affiliates to work with the goalies there. Dave Prior, director of goaltending, also has scouting duties, works with the prospects and visits Washington every couple of weeks. Kolzig sympathizes — to a point. “As a young guy, you definitely want somebody there all the time that understands the position. And [coach] Dale [Hunter] has already admitted that he’s not a goalie expert by any means,” Kolzig said. “And that’s why [Prior] and I are at his disposal. But at the same time, goalies have to go through some adversity on their own. You can’t have the goalie coach being there the whole time as a crutch. Sometimes you have to develop a certain mental toughness and figure things out on your own.” No one knows better than Kolzig, who needed parts of seven years in the minors before he topped 20 games in an NHL season and another couple to establish himself as a full-time starter. No guarantee Neuvirth will be able to do the same. But the blueprint, at least, is there. Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14 Washington Capitals Olie Kolzig on the new Alex Ovechkin Local media caught up with associate goaltender coach Olie Kolzig this afternoon and he riffed on several topics, including Michal Neuvirth, Dale Hunter and some interesting comments on the changes in Alex Ovechkin since his rookie season in 2005-06. Remember, Kolzig was his teammate for three full seasons. Few have better insight into the two-time Hart Trophy winner and why he isn’t the same player who dominated the NHL a few years ago. “I think a lot is frustration. Obviously he's not scoring at the clip that he's accustomed to. Part of that is not having Nicky Backstrom in the lineup,” Kolzig said. “I think you're seeing it a little more with Dale [Hunter] behind the bench. Alex was getting away from playing hard, no-nonsense, honesty type of hockey – exuberant hockey – that he displayed the first three years that he was in the league.” Fair point. But he didn’t stop there. Kolzig touched on a subject that veteran Ovechkin watchers have wondered for a few years now: Did the pro-wrestling style turn from hero to heel bother Ovechkin more than we thought? Remember all the little controversies – the “hot stick” celebration after scoring No. 50 in Tampa Bay in 2009, hitting countryman Sergei Gonchar knee-to-knee in the playoffs that same spring, snapping at former coach Bruce Boudreau on the bench, multiple suspensions, including one this season, for questionable hits, declining to attend the All-Star game last month during a three-game suspension. Maybe none of them on their own were a big deal. You could argue any single one of those incidents were blown completely out of proportion because it was Ovechkin. But taken together they also helped tweak Ovechkin’s image from the enthusiastic, young rookie who burst into the league to great fanfare – who used to be cheered in every Canadian city where he played - into a far more brooding figure. “I think that's what endeared him to everybody. Then all of a sudden, he was still the same Alex, he was celebrating a certain way. And what endeared him to everybody now made him look like a villain,” Kolzig said. “Part of it is he's probably feeling not as loved as he used to be. So he brings that on himself sometimes. Missing Nicky hurts. Teams have kind of got a handle on him on maybe how to close the gap on him and not allow him those fantastic 1-on-1 goals that he's used to scoring. For Alex, it's a work ethic. He just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days and maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock star status that comes with being Alex Ovechkin.” Yikes. Now, none of this is really a surprise. That’s probably why Kolzig was willing to even address the issue at all. It seems obvious to him what’s different between Ovechkin then and now so he just said it into a microphone. But that’s still as frank an assessment of the team’s captain as you’ll ever get on the record. Follow me on Twitter @bmcnally14 Washington Capitals Knuble practices with second line February 15, 2012, 11:34 am If Mike Knuble is still a member of the Capitals on Friday it looks like he’ll return to the lineup on a line with Brooks Laich and Roman Hamrlik. One day after saying he is considering a trade request, Knuble found himself practicing on what could be designated as the Capitals’ second line Wednesday at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. The Capitals are carrying just 12 forwards and could recall a forward from the AHL Hershey Bears before they embark Thursday on a four-game road trip that takes them to Florida, Tampa, Carolina and Ottawa. Coach Dale Hunter shuffled his other lines as well, moving Marcus Johansson back onto a top line with Alex Ovechkin and Troy Brouwer; Mathieu Perreault between Jason Chimera and Alex Semin; and Jeff Halpern between Joel Ward and Jay Beagle. The Capitals are also carrying eight defensemen. Defenseman Mike Green also took regular turns with defenseman John Erskine. The other defense pairings had Karl Alzner with John Carlson, Roman Hamrlik with Dmitry Orlov, and Jeff Schultz with Dennis Wideman. Washington Capitals Ovi Wrapped Up In Rock Star Status Says Kolzig By Sky Kerstein February 15, 2012 2:42 PM The Caps held a full practice today as they prepare for a four game road trip starting against the Florida Panthers on Friday, the team they’re four points back for tops in the Southeast Division. The Caps are also one point out of the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference and are only 3-4-3 in their last ten games. Olie Kolzig, the Caps Associate Goaltending Coach and former Caps star goalie for parts of 15 seasons, was at practice today working with the goalies and talked about Capitals Captain Alex Ovechkin, who he played with for three seasons, and his struggles the last few seasons. “For Alex it’s a work ethic, he just has to get back to being the way he was in his younger days,” Kolzig said on Ovechkin. “And maybe not get wrapped up too much in the rock star status that comes in being Alex Ovechkin.” Kolzig also added on Ovechkin, “Part of it he’s probably feeling a little, not as loved as he used to be, he brings that on himself sometimes.” Kolzig also talked about Caps goalie prospect Philipp Grubauer and how high he is on him. Grubauer plays for the ECHL South Carolina Stingrays and said if it wasn’t for the amount of goalies in the system, Grubauer should be in the harder AHL right now and not the ECHL. Kolzig addressed the fact that the Caps don’t have a goaltending coach around the team often and how it affects a young goalie like Michal Neuvirth. “Goalies have to go through some adversity on their own, you can’t have the goalie coach be in there the whole time as a crutch,” Kolzig said. Kolzig said while he is here he’ll talk to Michal Neuvirth and what he has been going through. Mike Green participated in his first full practice since January 17th and says they’ll wait until tomorrow to make a decision on if he’ll travel with the team on the upcoming four game road trip. “Good, good, I got to get my lungs back, but overall I felt good,” Green said on he felt today. “Another day that’s in the right direction.” Capitals Head Coach Dale Hunter was also happy with what he saw today. “He’s skating well,” Hunter said on Green. “We worked him on the power play and he moved well up top, he looks good, we have to wait and see tomorrow.” The dark cloud that continues to hang over the team is the benching of Mike Knuble the last three games and the question if he’ll get traded before the February 27th trade deadline. Knuble said today that he hasn’t talked with George McPhee or Dale Hunter about anything and that, ” I just want it to end.” “He looked good,” Hunter said on Knuble’s practice today. “He skated well and he’s chomping at the bit to go, again we’ll wait to see what happens.” Brooks Laich talked following practice today about the upcoming road trip. “Would we like to be in a better position? Yeah, but the reality is we aren’t so we have some work to do,” Laich said. “You can say what you want this season, there’s still a lot of hockey left and our team still has a lot to prove.” The Caps forward lines today looked like: Ovechkin-Johansson-Brouwer, Chimera-Perreault-Semin, Hendricks-Laich-Knuble, Beagle-Halpern-Ward. All eight defenseman and both goalies also took part in practice today. Hunter said that they haven’t talked yet about bringing an extra forward up for the road trip since they only have twelve forwards currently on the roster.
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