Thursday, January 15, 2009

Capital Gains

As two of the greatest NHL players ever, and certainly the two best players in the eighties and early nineties, Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemiuex were constantly compared to each other, and will forever be linked. In recent years, a new dynamic duo has emerged in the NHL; a pair of players that may someday join Gretzky and Lemiuex in the Hockey Hall of Fame, and rewrite the record books. Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby and Washington's Alex Ovechkin are the new faces of the National Hockey League, and although drafted in different years, the "lost" lock-out season brought both players into the league at the same time. Their numbers are similar - Crosby has 116 goals and 353 points in 258 career games, Ovechkin has 192 goals and 367 points in 288 career games. Crosby has a trip to the Stanley Cup Finals under his belt, but as the Penguins slide in the Eastern Conference standings amidst rumours of a coaching change, perhaps it is Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals turn for a long playoff run.

Although it certainly doesn't hurt to have one of the greatest young players in the world, the recent success in Washington goes beyond Ovechkin. An era of hard work, dedication and strong team play has come to the Verizon Center, and it starts with the team owners, and Ted Leonsis. As head of the Capitals ownership group since 1999, Leonsis is a bright light among NHL owners. A fan favourite, he writes regularly on the Capitals web site, he will often take time to talk hockey with fans, and he is a dedicated philanthropist - donating to many charities in the D.C. area through the Leonsis Foundation. He has also seen the franchise through some dark days of declining ticket sales and the transition from past stars, Olaf Kolzig and Peter Bondra, to the new stars in town - Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and defenseman Mike Green.

In his time as General Manager, George McPhee has accumulated many number one draft picks, but his greatest move may have been acquiring Sergei Federov from the Blue Jackets at the trade deadline as a mentor for his young Russian players. Federov was a key piece to the team that went from 14th in the Eastern Conference to the playoffs last season. In a move that may have saved his own job, McPhee promoted Bruce Boudreau from their AHL affiliate Hershey Bears to coach the Capitals. Many of the young players in Washington were familiar with Boudreau's systems already, and the Coach's faith in his players paid off. The city of Washington fell in love with the Caps again, and Boudreau was awarded the Jack Adams Trophy as Coach of the Year. A former player himself, McPhee played seven years in the NHL with the Rangers and Devils, and went on to earn a Law Degree from Rutgers University in 1992.

McPhee has used his number one picks wisely, using a pick acquired from Vancouver to draft Alexander Semin 13th overall in 2002. Mike Green was drafted 29th overall in 2004 and last season he became the youngest defenseman to lead the league in scoring among defensemen since Paul Coffey. He is now considered a sure thing for the 2010 Olympic team. Then there is Nicklas Backstrom, last year's runner-up for Rookie of the Year - no second year jinx for him. The young Swede, taken 4th overall in 2006, has 12 goals and 36 assists in 45 games this season. Of course, leading the way is Alexander Ovechkin. A slow start is behind him now and it's full speed ahead for Ovechkin and the Caps. They have earned their way to 2nd in the Eastern Conference with 59 points, and are well ahead of Carolina in the Southeast Division with a 12 point lead.

The Capitals are an unbelievable 18-3-1 at home in the Verizon Center, but have struggled on the road - posting a 10-11-2 record. More wins will come on the road as Jose Theodore and Brent Johnson round into form. Theodore is 15-8-1 with a 2.94 GAA and a .893 save percentage, Johnson's record is 11-6-2 with a 2.75 GAA and a .909 save percentage. Both goalies need to see their save percentages improve as the season progresses, but with the fire-power up front, the Capitals should come out ahead on the score sheet most nights. With stronger goaltending, Washington will certainly be a contender for the Stanley Cup, and Ovechkin will get his turn to play hockey in June. Have a great sports day everyone.

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