— The Washington Capitals, already stocked with a lot of choice goodies, added even more goodies on NHL Deadline Day, acquiring forwards Scott Walker and Eric Belanger, and blueliners Joe Corvo and a returning Milan Jurcina (the scoring machina).
All well and good. Decent pickups. Can't quibble with any of it, in large part because the Caps gave up only one roster player (Brian Pothier to Carolina in the Corvo swap), and that alone is an exceptional sleight-of-balance-sheet trick here in the salary cap era.
But the Caps didn't bolster their goaltending, which means, no matter how fearsome their attack, they're just OK at keeping pucks out of their net. They'll enter the playoffs, likely as the top seed in the East, entrusting the most critical position on the ice to the likes of Jose Theodore, Semyon Varlamov and/or Michal Neuvirth.
O.K., most nights those three goalies are competent. The playoffs, though, aren't most nights. Theodore and Varlamov are a combined 26-33 in postsesaon play. Neuvirth doesn't have a postseason minute on his resume. In all likelihood, it will be Theodore or Varlamov in the postseason and coach Bruce Boudreau will spend the next two months figuring out which of those two will carry the load. Why do I think a coin flip will be his ultimate decision-maker?
Sure, if the Caps' collection of high-end forwards, including superstar Alex Ovechkin, keep the puck at the far end of the the ice all night, then maybe the franchise collects its first Stanley Cup. That's just not how playoff hockey works. Even the great Oiler teams of the 1980s, for all their history-making offensive firepower, adjusted to a defensive mindset and game plan in the postseason. That wasn't because Wayne Gretzky and Co. liked playing defense, or relying on the likes of Grant Fuhr, Andy Moog and later Bill Ranford, but because they were forced into playing that way.
Without that defensive mindset and without that great goaltending, the Oilers would have drifted away aimlessly in the postseason. The Caps helped themselves in that regard with the Corvo and Jurcina (beckoned back from Columbus) acquisitions. Corvo, who owns a very good shot and is a valuable power-play asset, especially will help to take some of the heat off slick defenseman Mike Green (runner-up to Zdeno Chara for the Norris Trophy last season). Jurcina is a depth defenseman with real size (6-foot-4, 240 pounds).
What the Caps really needed, however, was an acquisition like the one they made in Feb. 2008, when they added Cristobal Huet from Montreal. He went 11-2 over the rest of the regular season and still looked good in the playoffs, when these Caps first showed they couldn't get their act together well enough defensively to vie for a Cup.
Some of that rests on the coach, of course. Boudreau, bless his old-time hockey heart, is one of the few NHL bench bosses who isn't bashful or full of apologies about playing two-way, chance-for-chance hockey. He took over what was a frustrating, moribund team under Glen Hanlon and instantly turned it around by allowing them — get this — to play with enthusiasm and passion. In a game too tightly controlled by coaches who continue to preach defensive, trapping hockey, Boudreau just let's 'em play. All of which is far easier to do when your lineup includes the amazing Ovechkin, by far the game's most dynamic player and most feared goal-scorer.
But with their goaltending suspect last spring, the Caps buckled in Game 7 of the second round against the Penguins. Faced with adversity in the seventh game, the Caps didn't have the netminding in Varlamov (the starter) or Theodore. Worse, they didn't have any semblance of a defensive fallback position in their overall game plan. The Penguins ran off to a 5-0 lead and finished with a 6-2 beatdown on the Caps' home ice.
Rumor around Boston leading up to the draft had Caps GM George McPhee trying to pry Tim Thomas away from the Bruins in a deal for winger Tomas Fleischmann. Thomas, just back from his tour backing up Ryan Miller on the U.S. Olympic Team, won the Vezina Trophy last season. He would have been the perfect fit in Washington. No knowing if the rumor was true, but Thomas' agent, Bill Zito, said that his client was never asked about the possibility of waiving his no-trade clause. Boston GM Peter Chiarelli said none of the players remaining on his roster post-trade deadline had been asked to surrender their NTC's.
Boudreau, in a report in the Washington Post immediately following the deadline, noted that attempts to improve the club's netminding didn't get anywhere.
''We're pretty comfortable with the three goalies we have,'' he added. “They've all won over 10 games (this season) and I think they're all good. People all look for faults on our team.''
Q: Rightly or wrongly, does Ryan Miller emerge from the Olympics as the Hart Trophy favorite now over Alex Ovechkin? I know Olympics not supposed to factor in the voting, but …
— Bill from Conn.
A: Interesting question, Bill, but I don't see anyone cutting in on A.O.'s party, preventing him from winning a third straight Hart.
Granted, Miller was extremely impressive in Vancouver, as he has been all season in the NHL. It's simple to make a case that the Sabres would be just also-rans without him (very much the test for selecting the MVP). But coming out of the Olympic break, L.A.'s Jonathan Quick (also on Team USA) actually had one more win than Miller this season. Of all the numbers posted by goalies, none is more important than the one next to W's.
Ovechkin will lead the league again in goals. He's is playing with a powerhouse Caps club that likely will be seeded first in the East, if not first overall. He'll cop the Hart and Miller will have to be content with the Vezina, the first in Buffalo since the Dominik Hasek days.
Q: Canada’s dramatic gold-medal win and the United States’ surprising run to the final certainly stole the show in Vancouver, but was there also much buzz there about how the ‘lightweights’ in the tournament have clearly made great strides? It was refreshing to view every game knowing it was likely to be competitive going in and a great sign for future of the sport.
— David Brantley from Salem, N.H.
A: Truth be told, Dave, there was some chat about how the Swiss hung in tough, especially against the U.S. and Canada, as well as the spirited play of the Slovaks (at least until they imploded when faced with the Finns in the bronze game).
But overall, there was far more focus on the total collapse of the once-mighty Russians, who scratched their way through the qualifying round before taking an embarrassing 7-3 beating at the hands of the Canadians, the ex-Soviets falling short of the medal round. The hockey team was a favorite post-Games target of Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who noted the need for reform and accountability across the board in Russian sports.
''Let's put up a bunch of guillotines and gallows,'' the New York Times quoted hockey coach Vyacheslav Bykov, when asked if his club had not prepared seriously enough for the tournament. ''We have 35 people on the hockey team. Let's go to Red Square and dispatch with them all.''
Wonder if they'll start with members of the the 1980 CCCP team that came up short in Lake Placid?