Goons vs. stars, Capitals mature, hockey movies and more notes
When a team's leading scorer is willing to fight, he sets the bar for his squad
The Capitals' win over the Penguins demonstrated crucial grit and maturity
Tooth Fairy doesn't make my list of all-time best and worst hockey flicks
A gentle reminder for Rangers coach John Tortorella: Whine all you want about honor, but the real culprit in the Marian Gaborik - Daniel Carcillo dust-up is you.
Hard to imagine anyone missed a fight between one of the league's leading scorers and one of its leading brawlers, but here's the video:
Surprising? Sure. Gaborik can be a little feisty at times, but he's far from what anyone would call a physical player. He averages about one hit per 25 minutes of playing time and had one previous fight during his 551-game NHL career. (Interestingly, he tussled with current Flyer Ian Laperriere.)
But there he was, not just in the middle of a scrum, but instigating contact when Carcillo grabbed him from behind. The two grappled and appeared to drop the gloves simultaneously, signaling an apparent willingness to go. No surprise that Gaborik didn't fare too well, but he sure showed up.
I made an appeal last week to let star players defend themselves on occasion, but this probably wasn't one of those spots where it made sense. Good on Gaborik for standing up in a key match with a divisional rival, but in this case, he and his team might have been better served if he'd just hugged and held on rather than stand there and take a beating from a guy who makes his living with his fists.
Tortorella was livid after the game, but instead of pointing fingers he should have been questioning his own judgment. It was Tortorella, after all, who watched the Flyers get whistled for an icing that forced their fourth line to stay on the ice for a draw in the Philly zone. And it was Tortorella who decided to put his first line of Gaborik, Brandon Dubinsky and Vinny Prospal up against the pugilistically inclined Carcillo, Laperriere and Blair Betts. The advantage gained by the mismatch in talent was pretty clear. Dubinsky cleanly won the draw and set up Prospal for a backhand bid that Flyers goalie Ray Emery bobbled, leading to the scrum. But as the players began milling about out front, the downside of Tortorella's decision became apparent. Was that talent advantage worth the risk of exposing his stars to the mercy of the Flyers' goons? Why not hedge the bet by replacing Prospal with Sean Avery to provide some kind of deterrent?
Tortorella's a fine coach, but moments like this serve to remind that in-game management isn't his strongest suit. As for Carcillo, he's bound to take a lot of heat for this, but look at the facts. He came into the scrum and removed Gaborik, who was about to double-team Kimmo Timonen. After some pushing and shoving, Carcillo's dance partner dropped a glove. What's he supposed to do in that situation? Wait until Gaborik lands a couple? Hardly.
And Gaborik, well, he demonstrated his level of commitment to the guys in the room. When the team's leading scorer is willing to answer the bell, that sets the bar for every guy wearing the sweater. This could end up being one of those galvanizing moments that defines the season for the Rangers.
And all because Tortorella screwed up.
Caps bust out
The Washington Capitals didn't get a second chance to play Game 7 of their 2009 playoff series against Pittsburgh on Thursday night. But with their 6-3 dismissal of the Penguins, this year's edition of the Caps suggested that a potential 2010 postseason sequel might have a very different result.
In what was the most heavily hyped matchup of the season, the Caps overcame an early goaltending gaffe by Jose Theodore with the sort of calm, focused effort that they simply couldn't muster while being dispatched by the Pens last spring.
A sign of a maturing squad? In a week that also included find-a-way wins over the Flyers and Red Wings, this was a statement that the Caps are ready to take the next step.
It looked as though the game might go the Pens' way early when Theodore misplayed a dump, allowing the puck to deflect off his stick, through his legs and toward the gaping cage where it was slammed home by Sidney Crosby just 4:22 into the contest. It was the sort of energy-sucking goal that could have derailed a lesser team, but the Caps maintained their composure and soon started to generate their own chances off the strong work in their own zone.
Playing without Mike Green, who suffered an undisclosed injury on Tuesday against the Red Wings, Washington's defense set the tone for the comeback. The Pens might have won more of the battles along the boards, but the Caps blueliners owned the middle of the ice, limiting Pittsburgh's odd-man chances, sweeping the crease clean of rebounds and clearing out intruding forwards. It was a solid group effort, highlighted by the play of rookies Karl Alzner and John Carlson, the World Junior hero who was pressed into action after the pre-game skate and turned in nearly 18 minutes of reliable work.
It still lacks a certain presence, but the unit deserves credit. The Caps don't need their back end to win games -- they just can't lose them like they have so often in the past. While the offense has gone on a tear lately -- scoring at least four goals in eight of their last nine games -- the blue line has afforded them stability. You can still sense the need for an upgrade before the playoffs, but the growth is apparent.
Ovechkin led the assault at the other end of the ice, scoring a pair of goals and creating chances through poetry -- Kris Letang is still searching for his jock after being undressed by a nifty through the legs move -- and sheer horsepower. But again, this was a different-looking Caps offense.
There were Mike Knuble and Eric Fehr, charging the crease to deposit a pair of goals that couldn't have traveled 18 inches between them. Both showed the kind of ability and temerity to go hard to the crease with jaw squared and stick on the ice that was lacking last spring.
And then there was Nicklas Backstrom, whose third-period marker showed that Crosby and Henrik Sedin aren't the only gifted passers who have discovered the value of shooting more often this season. Backstrom picked up a loose puck behind Pens backup Brent Johnson and swung out front. As the defense backed off to cover the lanes and Johnson cheated to his right, Backstrom took advantage of a gaping hole up top and roofed it. It was the sort of opportunity he would have passed up last season, but the new "selfish" Backstrom cashed this one in for his 21st goal of the season, just one shy of his career high.
But the most promising sign for these Caps was their ability to finish off the Penguins. Washington has displayed an alarming tendency in the past to take its foot off the gas when it has the lead. Thursday night, the Caps played even harder with the advantage than they did while trying to tie the Pens earlier in the contest. They wanted this game more than Pittsburgh, and they earned it.
It's best not to read too much into one midseason meeting, but don't blame Caps fans if they feel a bit more hopeful. Their team might not be Cup-ready just yet, but it's growing up fast.
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