Archives for posts with tag: Capitals

Not all 3-3 weeks are created equally.  Losing three straight to a Philadelphia team that was under .500 can easily be countered by taking three in a row at St. Louis.  What Phillie series?  What was more impressive about last week was that the Phils went on to sweep its weekend series with Cleveland.  They also were able to broom the Cardinals minus the muscle of Bryce Harper–walks aside, the team’s most productive player went hitless over the weekend.  Clint Robinson, Danny Espinosa and Chris Heisey all went yard in Sunday’s victory.  So much for being overly concerned after consecutive shutouts at home.

Dissecting the Division- at 17-7 the Nats currently lead the Mets by 1.5 games and the Phillies by 2.5 games.  It’s only May…but three of the top four records in the NL are in the East.  The three teams’ pitching staffs rank 1-2-3 in the NL in strikeouts and boast three of the top five ERA’s in the senior circuit.  At this point the Mets offense is the most consistent (7th in hitting and runs scored) while the Phillies lag behind the other two (14th in hitting and runs scored).  The Nats rank 10th in the NL in runs scored and are 13th in hitting.  Perhaps the I-95 corridor will be the home to the best race in baseball this year.

Last Week’s Heroes- how do you single out one pitcher in a rotation that posts a 1.00 ERA it’s last run-through?  Max Scherzer after a rough April (4.35 ERA, 5 HR, 12 BB over 5 starts) struck out nine over seven scoreless frames Sunday while not issuing a walk for the first time all season.  He also finished sixth on the team in hits (3).

Last Week’s Humbled- Ryan Zimmerman was one of those who trailed Scherzer in hits last week.  The first baseman’s 2 for 17 performance is underscored when Bryce Harper gets intentionally walked multiple times a game.  He’s hitting .188 with runners in scoring position this year…and at a position like first base you need better offensive numbers.

Game to Watch- Friday matinees are a Wrigley Field fixture.  Max Scherzer fresh off his best outing of the season duels with John Lackey (who’s off to a 3-1 start as well).  This year’s preseason favorites against the team picked to win it all last year.  Did I mention Cubs manager Joe Maddon bears a striking resemblance to the late Barry Goldwater?  It’s just a nice way to get the weekend underway.

Game to Miss- Saturday’s another story.  The 4:05 tilt not only takes place the same day (faceoff time TBA) as Capitals-Penguins Game 5, the latter portion of the game is in direct conflict with the Kentucky Derby.  No matter how much better Gio Gonzalez is this year (25 strikeouts to 7 walks, .196 opponents batting average) I’ll be wearing my madras jacket. 

Previously appearing on WTOP.COM…

 

It happens every spring… beauty and awe before they’re gone all of a sudden.  The Cherry Blossom season more often than not mirrors the Caps postseason:  heavy anticipation, attention-grabbing quick bloom,  and then after one or two rains it’s all gone.

The Capitals have enjoyed a checkered postseason in their history…unfortunately getting double-jumped by Pittsburgh, the Islanders and Rangers on multiple occasions while having to hear the refrain “King Me” a lot more than they’d prefer.  But in the middle of the wreckage of many a spring on ice they have also had their moments–it’s just tough to locate the highlights amongst the heartbreak.  Two provide a nice bookend to get us started…

 

Highlight Honorable Mention: 1983.  In Bryan Murray’s first full season as head coach, the previously hapless Caps (8-67-5 in their first year…and it took six seasons to post a winning percentage above .400) actually make the playoffs and lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champion New York Islanders.  Just like being nominated for best documentary, it was simply an honor to be the first speedbump that season for Mike Bossy, Billy Smith & company.

Heartbreak Honorable Mention: 2015.  Losing to the Rangers is never fun…and blowing a 3 games to 1 series lead is even more painful.  Thank you, Curtis Glencross for your contribution to Caps Collapse History.  Still, they bounced the Islanders (although losing game 6 meant they couldn’t close out Nassau Coliseum).  They won a game the same night the Wizards and Nats prevailed…and it was coach Barry Trotz’s first season.  Of course, the key to getting over heartbreak is rationalization.

 

Highlight #5: 1994.  Sadly, it’s a little bit of a challenge to find roses amongst the playoff thorns for this franchise.  But in 1994 they bounced recent nemesis Pittsburgh (who beat the Caps en route to Stanley Cups in 1991 & 92) in six games…outscoring the likes of Mario Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr from the get-go.  Don Beaupre stood on his head for four games…while Joe Juneau and Michal Pivonka led a balanced attack that more than took advantage of their opportunities.  The Caps won the series clincher 6-3 and had other games where they lit the lamp 4 and 5 times.  What happened to that NHL?

 

Heartbreak #5: 1986.  The eighties was a fantastic decade to follow the NHL-their playoffs were front and center on ESPN and the divisional playoff format led to upset-ridden Aprils.  The Patrick Division featured three teams in one metropolitan area and three more within manageable drives of one another.  An eighty game marathon to determine who’s the best…followed by five and seven game sprints to see who survives.  The Capitals finished with the third best record (107 points) in the league that year…but second in the division to Philadelphia.  When the Flyers were upset in the first round by the Rangers…the path was clear to a Stanley Cup Finals clash with defending champ Edmonton.  Only the Rangers (who finished with a pedestrian 78 regular season points) had more in the tank…bouncing Mike Gartner and company in six games.  Small consolation:  Edmonton lost in their divisional finals as well that year.

 

Highlight #4: 1984. You never forget your first series win.  Especially when it’s a sweep.  Against the team less than 3 hours up I-95.  And especially when it ends the career of Hall of Famer Bobby Clarke.  Long before he was ruining the Flyers on a short-term (as General Manager) and long-range (as Senior VP) basis, Clarke was one of the scrappiest (some will say dirtiest) players in the league.  He was the face of the franchise in Philadelphia…and to sweep him into retirement by beating the Flyers in the Spectrum was the extra onions on the cheesesteak.  Yes, they lost to the Islanders in the next round.  But still…

 

Heartbreak #4: 1989.  Finally, a Patrick Division regular season championship.  This would be the team that would finally emerge from the early rounds…only to learn that in the divisional playoff format turnabout isn’t just fair play, it’s often expected.  The Caps got bounced by an aging Philadelphia team in six games.  These weren’t the Broad Street Bullies…or even the Cup runners-up from 1987.  How bad were these Flyers?  Their 80 points was the team’s fewest since 1972 and they’d go on to miss the playoffs the next five seasons.  Which brings to mind the question about banner protocol.  Do you have to return the regular season championship banner if you lose in the first round?

 

Highlight #3: 2012.  A team in turmoil fires its coach early in the season and brings in a legend (Dale Hunter) to put the house in order.  After finishing two games over .500…the grittier version went into Boston and won a game seven (thank you Joel Ward!) before taking the #1 team in the conference (Rangers) to seven games in the next round.  The foundation was set.  And Coach Dale Hunter would be back to take this franchise to the next level.  Only he didn’t…choosing to return to his role as president and owner of the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League.  The team would stagger and then crumble under Adam Oates.  But we’ll always have that spring…

 

Heartbreak #3: 2009.  After winning the Southeast Division (let the record show that it was called the SouthLEAST for much of its existence), the Caps trailed the Rangers 3 games to 1 before taking games five, six and seven (so it does happen the other way sometimes!).  A thrilling conference semifinal showdown against Pittsburgh and Sidney Crosby brought three overtime affairs and a 3-3 series tie heading into a Game Seven at Verizon Center.  Sadly, this finish would be more floundering than fantastic and the Penguins won a 6-2 clincher that wasn’t as close as the score looked.  That Pittsburgh would go on to win the Stanley Cup would be little consolation this time.

 

Highlight #2: 1990.  An underwhelming regular season saw the Caps finish with a losing record for the first time in eight years.  Naturally there was a midseason coaching change.  Oddly enough, coach Bryan Murray was replaced by his brother Terry.  Thankfully Bryan didn’t go all Fredo (he remains smart and deserves respect).  Despite an 18-14-2 finish under Murray 2.0, little was expected.  And with low expectations comes a surprising first round triumph over New Jersey.  Followed by shocking the first place Rangers in five games.  Even after getting swept by a better Boston team in the Cup Semis, the team’s first and only Patrick Division banner remains a high point during their stay in Landover.

 

Heartbreak #2: 1987.  Again, sometimes its how the movie ends that enhances everything before it.  The seven-game showdown with the Islanders was one for the ages.  Another 3 games to 1 lead with a game five at home.  Haven’t we written this script before?  Yes…but only this time the game seven went down to the wire and beyond.  A late one-goal lead disappeared with 5 minutes left in regulation.  Four overtimes later Pat LaFontaine ends the Capitals’ season…and a game that began at 7pm concludes at 1:58 am.   Easter morning was a groggy one for many families in the area.

 

Highlight #1: 1998.  After finishing third in their division, the Caps rode hot goaltender Olaf Kolzig to the finals for the first time in franchise history.  Never mind that they got swept by Detroit.  And never mind that they took advantage of a busted bracket (upsets of Pittsburgh and New Jersey meant they would have better records than each of their playoff foes in the first three rounds).  Even the teal eagle jerseys couldn’t ruin this run.

 

Heartbreak #1:  2010.  After winning the President’s Trophy, the high-flying offensive juggernaut looked as though it was ready to finally crown Alex Ovechkin (career high 59 assists), Nicklas Backstrom (career highs in goals and assists) and Mike Green (before the injuries).  After taking a 3-1 first round series lead over Montreal (and posting 19 goals)…they somehow forgot the league changed the format to best-of-seven back in the 1980’s.  Yes, the Canadiens Jaroslav Halak somehow conjured up the spirits of Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy to limit the #1 offense in the league to 1 goal in games 5, 6 and 7.  But to lose in the first round after 82 games of positive reinforcement?  The Bruce Boudreau regime would never be the same–making its eventual departure less than 20 months later.

Summer came later this year for the winter residents of Verizon Center…for the first time ever the Wizards and Capitals advanced to the second round of their respective playoffs.  Sadly the confidence of sweeping Toronto and the buzz of a seventh game triumph over the Islanders washed away with each team losing three straight games en route to similar summer vacations.  Plenty of progress made on each front– but exits that while aren’t unexpected (both lost to the conference’s top seed) still keep the teams in a familiar place.  Not even in position to get in position for a possible title.  The Capitals haven’t been to a conference final since 1998–despite more than a few chances with a multiple MVP winner.  The Wizards–let’s go back to 1979 when the Bullets were last in the NBA’s Final Four.  That was the year that Magic and Bird met in the NCAA’s Final Four–a demarcation line dividing pro hoops Jurassic Era from the “Birmagijordan Era” (apologies for an unwieldy mashup) that powered the league’s ascendance over a 20 year span (for those scoring at home…I guess the “modern” era of Duncan/Lebron is in its latter stages, I just need to come up with an equally bad title).  It’s been a while since either team had a chance to play for a title–what needs to be addressed as each reloads for a run?

 

The Wizards saw a 2-1 lead (thanks to Paul Pierce’s last-second basket) evaporate despite the late-game heroics of Paul Pierce:  yes, the truth is he missed a game-tying three at the end of Game 4–but his three put the club ahead briefly in Game 5 and his game-tying 3 was waved off in Game 6. Fans not only have those what-ifs to deal with, but the absence of John Wall for three games with 5 non-displaced fractures in his left wrist and hand will have the faithful thinking they could have swept the Hawks (fans are fun that way).  Their 46 wins were the most since the 1978-79 title season.  Can they build on that or will this be like previous nucleus peaks of 2005 (45 wins and a sweep by Miami in the 2nd round), 1997 (44 victories and a sweep by Chicago in the 1st round) or 1987 (sadly, 42 wins and a sweep by Detroit was as good as it got in the 80’s)?  Wizards’ needs include a producer inside (Nene was negligible in the postseason) and a second unit sparkplug (Otto Porter showed flashes in the postseason, but was always better when playing with the starters).  Kevin Seraphin picked a great time to let everybody know he becomes a free agent– his 13 points and 8 rebounds was the one frontcourt bright spot in the Game 6 loss (although Nene notched 11 rebounds, the Brazilian Big Man, Paul Pierce and food-poisoned Marcin Gortat shot 4-18).  Other players hitting the free agent market are Drew Gooden (who’s been a nice veteran presence on this club), Rasual Butler (who played in just 2 playoff games) and Will Bynum (who notched 19 points in 27 minutes against the Hawks in the playoffs).  Paul Pierce and Garrett Temple have player options;  while the 37-year old Pierce suffers from excessive mileage and might just decide to call it a career…you’d hope they’d find a way to bring #34 back.  Temple was hurt late in the season–and his money might be better spent elsewhere.  On the bright side, Andray Blatche’s amnestied contract finally clears the books this summer.

 

The Capitals didn’t necessary collapse in their Eastern Conference Semifinal Series with the Rangers–but it’s tough to ignore a blown late lead in Game 5 followed by sluggish start in Game 6.  The Game 6 implosion–although they rallied to make it a one-goal game–is what concerns me.  It was at home.  There was a chance to advance and they coughed up early and late first period goals.  Say what you will about the overtime losses in Games 5 and 7–but the one that still stings is the Mother’s Day defeat.  Year one under Barry Trotz saw a return to the playoffs…and another 50-goal season for Alex Ovechkin and another 60-assist season for Nicklas Backstrom.  Not to mention iron-man goaltender Braden Holtby (Glenn Hall, watch your back).  As always, it feels like the Caps are closer than the Wiz but there are still a few roadblocks on the highway to the Cup Finals.  Can they find a front-line scorer to compliment Ovechkin and Backstrom?  Only Spinal Tap drummers had similar shelf lives this winter on that line.  Will they get a solid second-line center to maximize the likes of Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky?  Do they even try to re-sign Mike Green?  It’s been six years since the defenseman’s offensive numbers peaked with 31 goals and 42 assists.  How do they address in-season acquisitions with expiring contracts like Curtis Glencross  and Tim Gleason?  Other unrestricted free agents include Eric Fehr, Jay Beagle and Joel Ward.  We’ll learn this summer if they were simply holdovers from the previous regime or guys Trotz wants in his dressing room.  Kuznetsov, Marcus Johannson and Braden Holtby are restricted free agents this summer.  Keeping #70 in DC is priority #1.

 

 

Timing is everything.  On the day of the first home NBA playoff game in DC since 2008, the Redskins make Robert Griffin III available to the media.  On the morning after a tough Game 3 loss by the Wizards, the Capitals make a regime change by firing Coach Adam Oates and not giving General Manger George McPhee a new contract.  A sleepy DC that had been on edge for two weeks awaiting word of the status of a GM that went back to the team’s final days in Landover received quite a shock at brunch.  For the first time in a while, the Capitals are the area franchise in the biggest transition.

It had to happen.  Not many General Managers last for 17 years at any spot…especially if they haven’t delivered a Stanley Cup.  The closest the Caps got under GM GM was in his first season at the helm when the Teal Eagle jersey clad bunch (unless they were sporting the alternate Capitol + sticks top) got swept in the Finals by Detroit.  Some compare the Caps reaching the Finals in McPhee’s first season to Maryland football winning the ACC in Ralph Friedgen’s first campaign;  both had initial success and were ride out the capital of their initial success with a nucleus not completely of their doing.  And both came under fire years later when teams completely built with their players faltered.

Location, location, location– some say that McPhee was able to extend his stay in DC because the Caps were realigned from the competitive Atlantic Division into the Southeast early in his tenure.  And while Tampa Bay and Carolina won Cups in the seasons before and after the lockout, the grouping certainly seemed “Southleast” the last couple of years (2013 in particular).  Once in a division with a questionable name but quality competition, the Caps may have been waiting for that April awakening that always occurred against division foes– only to find the Metropolitan not nearly as forgiving.

McPhee tried to get the team back to the Finals by adding high-priced veterans until the team got too old…and owner Ted Leonsis with being patient about McPhee developing a plan to get this team built from the ground up.  After reaching the postseason in 2008 and winning a first round series in 2009, the Caps were poised to make noise in 2010 as the President’s Cup Trophy winner.  But a 3-1 First Round series lead evaporated against Montreal Goalie Jaroslav Halak– and since then the team’s been chasing its proverbial tail.  Switching styles and goalies like socks.  Making reactive instead of proactive moves.  In that way Adam Oates was the perfect final coach of the McPhee era:  juggling lines not just between games but between periods.

The team finished 13th in scoring and 21st in goals against this past winter:  instead of blaming a revolving door between the pipes (four netminders…with Jarslav Halak fittingly coming to the Caps via trade to wrap up the insanity), a bad blue line didn’t help things.  Fourteen defenseman saw ice time this season–and only three (Alzner, Carlson, Green) played at least 55 games.  There seemed to be constant movement up and down I-83 to minor league Hershey– providing a lack of consistency that seemed to provide problems on a regular basis.  The inability to bolster the blue line was one of the key factors in the Caps being unable to make the playoffs.  How many quick goals were allowed?  How many 2-goal leads evaporated?  At times the defense was offensive…and not in a good way.

Another factor in the team’s decline was the lack of even-strength success for Alex Ovechkin (24 of his 51 goals and 15 of his 28 assists came on the power play–add in a shorthanded assist and the majority of his points came in special teams situations).  Some blame can be fixed on the GM– the lack of a solid #2 center definitely hurt– but some blame can be placed on the coach.  Instead of keeping Ovechkin with Backstrom– the first line had a slot-machine feel to it.  And unfortunately the Caps rarely got three pineapples in a row.

Seventeen years is a long time to be anywhere.  The Capitals are definitely the better for being under George McPhee’s guidance…but the time has come for a fresh perspective and different approach to building around the current nucleus before it gets too old (six of the top seven goal-scorers from this years team were at least 28).  A new GM with his coach in charge.  Where as the pressure was previously on McPhee to make things work with the coach…and the coach to make things work with Ovechkin/Backstrom/Green/goalie du jour, the next era will be on the shoulders of #8.  Will the captain be able to adjust to a new regime?  George McPhee’s legacy is complete.  Adam Oates’ legacy, however brief as coach, is set.  How Alex Ovechkin will go down in Caps history is up to him as much as it will be dependent on the moves made this spring by his owner.

Say what you will about the Washington Nationals breaking out the brooms against everybody not wearing an A on their cap– they’re simply tenants in the subdivision currently run by the landlords known as the Atlanta Braves.  The Nats may very well be the team to beat for the second straight season… but the Braves are the team that’s beating them.  The pounding over the first two weekends of the 2014 season (losing 5 of 6 by the composite score of 32-16) reminds the DC faithful that they remain the bug and Atlanta remains the windshield of the NL East.

The preseason favorites were outscored (allowing 6+ runs in four of the six games), shut down (held to 1 or 2 runs in four of the six games), squeaked by (a 7-6  extra inning loss Friday) or blown out (a 10-2 thumping Sunday).  Leadoff hitter Denard Span went 1 for 15 against Braves pitching before missing two games with a concussion…and staff ace Stephen Strasburg posted a 6.23 ERA against Atlanta’s lineup that currently ranks 16th in hitting and 22nd in runs scored.  These games have been lost thanks in part to butchered base running (on multiple counts)…instant replay (Ian Desmond’s inside the park home run that became a double)…and faulty fielding (3 errors the first weekend…7 more in the second).  They’ve had one starter get to the seventh inning (Taylor Jordan) in six games…and have hit .164 with runners in scoring position (stranding 7.5 runners a game) against their nemesis to the south.  Tough to find any silver lining in these hurricane clouds.

The good news is they won’t see the Braves for over two months (June 19-22 they host the NL East leaders)…while the bad news is that this bunch will be banged up for some time.  Ryan Zimmerman (broken thumb, 4-6 weeks) joins Wilson Ramos on the disabled list while Denard Span (concussion) and Scott Hairston (sore knee) missed time this past weekend.  So let them get fat against the Marlins…and good luck when St Louis comes to town.  Because even though there are only 19 games against the Braves this year, the Nationals will be chasing Atlanta even if they pass them.

 

Capitals Close Shop– for the first time since 2007… there will be no postseason hockey in the district.  Now this isn’t like most six-year playoff runs:  the Caps never were able to get past the second round/conference semifinal round–twice losing in seven games and the other time getting swept.  Last May’s first round stumble to the NY Rangers (in one of the worst game seven efforts ever-next to the collapse against Pittsburgh in 2009) was the team’s fourth game seven loss at home during the current “run”.  Or should I say stagger.  Alex Ovechkin’s chase of 50 goals while boasting the worst plus-minus in the league was mind-boggling.  Hands-down the the most hollow DC-area stat since Bruce Smith notched the career sack record (at least the Caps didn’t sell Ovie coins).  Will GM George McPhee and/or coach Adam Oates survive the April evaluations?  This team doesn’t need new leadership as much as it needs quality defensemen.  The blue line was a sore spot the entire season…and for a team that has a preponderance of potential line combinations the fact that the goaltender du jour didn’t have consistent quality in front of him can’t be ignored.

 

Masters remains a “tradition unlike any other”.  Especially with Jim Nantz’s “overused catchphrase unlike any other”.  Was anyone else hoping for Jimmy Walker to make a run at the green jacket just to see if Nantz would be tempted to say “Dy-no-mite”?  As if he would.  Veteran Bubba Watson outdueled 20-year old Jordan Spieth (who shined for the first two rounds last June at the AT&T National) for his second green jacket in three years.  What next?  We often project the run a major champion will have (Mark O’Meara in 1998, Padraig Harrington in 2007-08).  But often they end up like Jim Furyk…still searching for their second major almost to the point that we forget their first.  Watson’s won just four PGA tournaments in his pro career.  Same as José María Olazábal when he won at Augusta National in 1994 and ’99.  Including his run at the Masters, Bubba has just four top ten finishes in Majors (Masters wins in 2012 & 14, 2nd PGA 2010, T5 US Open 2007).  Just like Sandy Lyle.  Will Spieth become the next great thing?  Sergio Garcia finished second in a major at 19–and we’re still waiting on the now 34-year old.  Unfortunately the mixed cocktail of no Tiger, Phil missing the cut and sunny skies on the east coast resulted in the lowest TV ratings in a decade.  Just like the NBA never really got ready for the post-Jordan boom…golf doesn’t have that next big magnet that brings in non-golf fans.  But on the bright side…Bubba celebrated his Masters win by eating at Waffle House and tweeted a picture with the hashtag “hashbrowns”.  Now those are traditions unlike any other.

 

What a crazy couple of weeks in Washington.  A perennial doormat punches its playoff ticket…while a perennial contender plays its way towards extra golf.  A baseball sweep reminds us that the first week is meaningless-except when it is– and a football signing reminds us that while a certain football team tries to move beyond the big offseason splash, they’re only a few days away from shouting “CANNONBALL!”.  Brackets are burned before a local team blazes its way to the Final Four.  And in the middle of it all, the Mother we’ve been waiting to meet meets her maker.  Where to begin?

 

When I left you last, I was focusing on my “Bold, Fold, and Gold” (patent pending) picks.  Bold Picks Providence, NC State, Nebraska and Ohio State failed to get to the weekend.  Fold Picks VCU, Oklahoma and Villanova underperformed their seed while Michigan lost in the regional finals.  And Gold Selections Kansas & Duke didn’t survive the first weekend…while Michigan State came up short and Wisconsin advanced.  Alma Mater Update– I was bummed to see Syracuse come up short in the round of 32…but after seeing them play the way they had since early February I wasn’t surprised in the least.  So now we have the pre-tournament favorite (Florida), a team that finally got its act together after underachieving for far too long (Kentucky), and two hardscrabble teams that flew in under the radar (Wisconsin by the vanilla-ness of their image as a buzz-cut wearing boring bunch and UConn by scraping together three consecutive upsets).  My fear is Kentucky wins and the press goes back to kissing the feet of John Calipari…because talent trumps all the frills and winners write history.  I’m hoping for Florida-Wisconsin…and the usual “spontaneous cliched final call”.

Speaking of Final Fours…how did this Maryland team get there?  Wasn’t this the bunch that struggled with just one alpha dog in Alyssa Thomas carrying too much of the burden?  Wasn’t this the team that lost their ACC Quarterfinal game and came undone on the road repeatedly?  Wasn’t this a team directed by a freshman point guard that would most assuredly be hitting the wall given the minutes she’s had to play this winter?  Au contraire– do not underestimate coach Brenda Frese when she has two weeks to get her team back in gear after a rough couple of months.  Don’t underestimate the power of Alyssa Thomas–a swiss army-knife of a player that allows her team to go big and small often on the same possession.  And don’t think that just like Kentucky can jell down the stretch after five months playing together, the freshman three-pack of Lexie Brown, Brionna Jones and Shatori Walker-Kimbrough won’t start playing like upperclassmen.  The win over top seed Tennessee was impressive, but beating Louisville on their home court was absolutely huge.  THAT JUST DOES NOT HAPPEN.  Credit quick starts in both games…and with unbeaten Notre Dame on the horizon the Terps know that a slow start against the Fighting Irish in the regular season cost them in the long run that night.

The Maryland women are in the Final Four for the first time since 2006… while the Washington Wizards are in the playoffs for the first time since 2008.  Break out the banners!  This for a franchise that hadn’t even been over .500 after November since…well, quite some time.  Coach Randy Wittman’s meshed together a hungry group that at its best does the little things–and with the necessary intensity.  And they’re doing this with minimal contributions from their first round pick from last June–although once Otto Porter gets healthy, he should be a factor in the future.  Two moves that made the season–sending Emeka Okafor to Phoenix for Marcin Gortat (who would have thought his game and beard would have held up in DC?);  and signing Drew Gooden off the scrap heap (providing quality minutes once Nene got hurt).  Can they dream of a #6 seed and a first round upset?

While the Wizards are on the upswing, the Capitals are collapsing.  Four straight losses aren’t helping…and Alex Ovechkin going point-less in even-strength situations during the month of March was deadly.  Years of getting fat late in the season against Southleast Division competition may be coming back to haunt the team this April.  For years I’ve compared the Caps to the Cherry Blossoms– they spring to life in late March and early April before becoming an afterthought in May.  Evidently the winter weather in DC took a different tone on the ice.

Deja Vu may be in play for the Nationals:  the team swept its opening series with the New York Mets– just like last year when they broomed Miami.  Unfortunately 2013 season did not adopt the “most impressive first series gets a bye into October” rule…and a rude awakening was just around the corner:  beginning with a rough weekend in Cincinnati and a home sweep by Atlanta.  The first-place Nats play the Braves a little earlier this year– as in the home opener.  Will new manager Matt Williams make the right lineup and relief decisions?  Tanner Roark was the right move in a spot-start today…but it’s a long season.  159 more…

Redskinsanity– Desean Jackson is a Redskin.  The team adds another major weapon for coach Jay Gruden–and in theory this is not a bad move.  It’s only a three year deal.  Jackson’s 27…and has more than a few productive years left.  Gruden and RGIII will find ways to get him the ball in the right spot…and if he isn’t racking up big catches it’s because he’s drawing extra coverage that’s not on Pierre Garcon.  This will be the move that puts a team just one year removed from the playoffs back into the postseason.  The defense and special teams will need all the bailing out this fall-and this lightning rod is exactly what you need.  But they’ve taken Eagle castoffs before…and Jeremiah Trotter and Donovan McNabb weren’t difference-makers here.  There’s the gang thing.  And the uneasiness that now accompanies every free agent move made by the Redskins.  Call it Albert Haynesworth’s shadow…

How I Met Your Mother wrapped up a nine-year run on CBS with a divisive series finale that had many long-time viewers up in arms.  In reality, it was a show that had probably been on the air two or three years too long…and I’m glad to have closure.  Did we need to spend an entire season on one wedding weekend when the marriage would come undone 15 minutes into the season finale?  Did we need to send a character on a roadtrip that went nowhere quickly because the actor playing him was busy shooting a movie?  Did we need to kill off the very mother we were searching for the entire time?  Did viewers need to edit together a “new ending” that wrapped up on the train platform or start an online petition?  It’s tough to stick a landing in a series finale.  M*A*S*H broke the mold in the manner that there was finality…but not every show is about a war (or conflict…or even a police action).  I thought the last season was a little bit uneven from multiple Billy Zabka sightings to further Fonzification of Barney (I won’t even mention how they turned him back into the heel he once was only to redeem him with a daughter all in ten minutes of screen time).  I heard they had to trim the final episode by 18 minutes…I’m sure the jumpiness of the timeline was made worse because of that.  It’s too bad they couldn’t have fleshed out the whole story…because for whatever strengths and weaknesses HIMYM had, it was about storytelling.  And the ending felt rushed.  But it was a fun place to visit on Mondays…and a decent group of characters to enjoy watching from the next booth at MacClaren’s.

 

 

Did it have to end this way? Couldn’t the Caps have not turned things on with an 11-1-1 April? Couldn’t they have dropped one of the two overtime games that they wound up winning-only masking a team that didn’t lead in regulation after the 12:50 mark of the first period of game three? Meaning after game one the Caps led for exactly 8:44 of the final 377 minutes and 24 seconds. The summer of discontent begins with questions, comments and concerns in Caps Nation.

Seventh Hell?– the Caps fall to 3-9 lifetime in Game Sevens…and 1-8 at home (the only win coming in 2009 over the New York Rangers). Their history of misery began on the night before Easter in April 1987 when they lost in four overtimes to Pat LaFontaine and the New York Islanders– I had to get up at 6am the following day to go to church to play handbells. Let’s just say Eggs Benedict on 4 hours sleep does not work wonders-especially with bells clanging repeatedly.

Southeast Mirage– while the Capitals made their run, they were loading up (15-3) on a weak Southeast Division–the only division to send just one team to the playoffs and one that boasted three of the four worst records in the league. Next winter they’ll be realigned into something similar to the old Patrick Division-making their path the postseason much more difficult but perphaps will better prepare them for when they get there.

Penalties Posing Problems– 14 more penalty minutes brought the Caps’ 7 game total to 76. Every try to sprint after laying back on your heels for an extended period of time? When you spend one out of every six minutes trying to hold off a power play…it’s tough to generate offensive flow and momentum. There were a few mystifying penalties. And there were some stupid ones. Cleaning them up in the future when games matter most will be a priority.

Lundqvist Lays Down the Lumber– It’s tough to consistently outshoot your opponent yet consistently come up empty. The Caps were stonewalled again by Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist– 62 saves over the last two games…the Rangers in their duck and dive defensive style were able to limit quality chances. While there’s no shame in losing to a hot goaltender, Caps fans have to wonder when they have the standing on his head goalie again. Is Braden Holtby that guy? He had played superbly until Monday’s defeat…and in looking at the longview is the best netminder this current Caps generation of players has had behind them.

Mister May?– with apologies to baseball HOF Dave Winfield and the late George Steinbrenner, it’s actually a good thing to be sort of a Mister May in the NHL Playoffs. After scoring a league-high 32 goals in the lockout-shortened regular season, Alex Ovechkin tallied 1 goal and 1 assist in the series with the Rangers. Usually a producer in the postseason (first four years averaging more than 1 point a game, with a high of 10 goals and 11 assists in 14 games in 2009), the Caps captain posted 9 points over 14 games last sping…and saw that production decrease this May. He’s got to go home and have a summer like Larry Bird did in 1984 when the Celtics got swept by Milwaukee…the legend came back focused and on fire en route to the three best years of his career. Does Ovie have the aptitude and attitude to maximize his altitude?

It takes a Village– now while we acknowledge the importance of having your best players play their best…hockey is the one sport where the dominant stars have the least overall influence. A quarterback handles the ball on every play. A pitcher determines every pitch. And a great basketball player can touch the ball every time up the floor. Ovechkin is only on the ice for 35 to 45 seconds at a time… and relies on his teammates as much as if not more than other sports’ elite players. Martin Erat’s injury midway through the series undercut the second line… and Brooks Laich’s season long struggles hurt the team as well. What moves will need to be made to maintain the nucleus that coach Adam Oates desires yet improve the overall talent so next May there’s a second or even third series to think about?

Cruel Summer– this season began in late January due to the lockout, many marveled at how long the offseason was. Truth is, after experiencing just enough playoff success to think of it as a probability instead of simply a possibility–every offseason you’re not playing for a Cup (let alone playing for playing for a Cup)-is a long, cruel summer.

April showers us with beginnings and endings… with college hoops and the Wizards in our rear-view mirror…the Caps making their annual April surge before their annual May backslide…Nats and O’s starting to get in gear and the NFL Schedule Announcement and Draft marking the league’s territory on our sports couch.

The NFL Draft has grown with the league and ESPN over the years…transforming from a Tuesday afternoon until Wednesday morning 12-round marathon to the current Thursday-Friday-Saturday showcase. I preferred the first three rounds on Saturday…last four on Sunday, but that’s just me. I don’t know when all the talking heads and analysts and experts became white noise…but sometimes less is more. It’s easy to fall into overanalysis…especially with the draft being an inexact guessing game where franchise histories turn on a dime.

What if Chicago wins the coin flip with Pittsburgh in 1970 and takes Terry Bradshaw?  Or if the Steelers pick Robert Newhouse instead of Franco Harris two years later?  Dallas picked tight end Doug Cosbie in 1979 when Joe Montana was the highest remaining player on their board–one of the few times they deviated from “the board”.  And San Francisco traded its first rounder in 1985 to move one spot ahead of the Cowboys in 1985 to take Jerry Rice.

The Redskins don’t have a first rounder– and given the production and franchise-changing mojo Robert Griffin III provided last fall, it appears worth it.  They do own seven picks… the first being a second rounder (51st overall).  Now pick #51 isn’t completely foreign to the Skins or Mike Shanahan.  They’ve had that choice as recently as 2008…as Oklahoma WR Malcolm Kelly was the “hurt one” in the famed receiver triumvirate. (Devin Thomas was the untalented one, Fred Davis the sleepy one).  Linebacker Greg Jones (1997) didn’t stay long in burgundy and gold but did start 15 games for the 1999 NFC East champs.  Mike Shanahan had the 51st selection three years in a row (2001-03)…and while RB Clinton Portis produced LB Terry Pierce played just 18 NFL games and DE Paul Toviessi didn’t play a regular season down in the league.

Interesting #51’s include one Hall of Famer:  New Orleans linebacker Rickey Jackson (1981).  Three other linebackers of note:  NY Giants Pepper Johnson (1986), Minnesota’s Matt Blair (1974)–a special teams dynamo as a kick-blocker, and current Redskins Defensive Coordinator Jim Haslett (1979, Buffalo).  My favorite #51?  Green Bay’s Max McGee (1954), the guy who skipped bedcheck the night before Super Bowl I and caught 7 passes for 138 yards and 2 TD’s against Kansas City.

 

 

I grew up an hour north of Boston.  I’ve covered the Marathon.  My sister was on the same block as the explosions yesterday…and my cousin’s wife was at the finish line with her 1 and 3 year old until a half hour before the blasts.  One reason why I fell into sports journalism is that it’s fun…aka the toy department… and I can try to be mildly amusing when talking about Toronto playing Tampa Bay by saying “You can call them Rays, you can call them Jays”.  Again, the focus is more on mild than amusing.  But one can’t be sarcastic about train accidents, trials or war.  I’m the comedic relief.  It’s tough when the nasty world invades my own…I was covering Otto Porter Jr’s announcement he was headed to the NBA when the Marathon went from sporting spectacle to a day of disaster.  I scrambled to reach my sister and although she was safe she was understandably shaken.  I’ve heard her happy and sad over the years–but never in terror…and as a big brother that shook the hell out of me.  I feel for the victims.  I’m happy friends and family are safe.  And I hope justice comes in finding who’s responsible for this.  Now it’s time for another press conference (Maryland’s Alex Len going pro)…and afternoon drive updates on WTOP, where I try to be mildly amusing.  To paraphrase Lorne Michaels and Rudy Guiliani, “Can I be funny?”–“Why start now?”.

Miami makes everything go down better– Seems as thought all the Nationals needed was a trip to South Beach to cure their recent ills…getting swept by Atlanta. It’s a long season, but it’s never good to be broomed at home by one of your division rivals.  Bullpen issues (13th in the National League in OBP, 14th SLG, 3rd in blown saves) catching injuries (Ramos on the shelf in a strange sense of deja vu) and the inability to beat playoff teams (1-5 against teams that made the 2013 postseason) have to temper whatever Nattitude was as full steam after the opening series sweep of the AAA Miami Marlins.  I almost want to downgrade the Marlins to a minor league city like “Dade County Dipsy Doodles” until they get their act together.  And with another three-spot against this mess of a franchise, the Marlins may be the worst thing for this club right now–giving the Nats false confidence when they still have a ways to go to get back to last year’s level.  If you win, so what– these are the Marlins.  And when you can’t beat the worst team in the league like Tuesday night, what are you to do?  A key early stretch is on the horizon–from April 22nd to May 2nd the Nats play 11 games against St. Louis, Cincinnati and Atlanta.  Brace yourselves.

Capital Blossoms– last week I compared the Capitals to the Cherry Blossoms in DC… blooming in early April before becoming an afterthought by mid-May.  Now they have been on a tear as of late… but how much of that is a byproduct of being in the softest division of the NHL (let the record show they are 14-3 against the Southeast Division)? Can this team compete effectively over a seven game series against a legitimately good team?  Tuesday’s 5-1 thumping of Toronto was the 10th out of division win for the team this season (10-14-2) in 26 games…how tired were the Maple Leafs after last night’s 2-0 win over New Jersey?  In a season that’s given us plenty of schedule quirks (like consecutive nights in Winnipeg)… the Caps have started a five game stretch against teams from Canada.  But more importantly they play their final three games at home–including a duel with second place Winnipeg Tuesday April 23rd (Jets trail the Caps by 4 points with 5 games remaining).  Eight straight wins… is there any room left on the bandwagon?

Moving Days– Sophomores Otto Porter, Jr. and Alex Len declare for the NBA one day apart while Georgetown and Maryland wish them well.  Coach John Thompson III wasn’t shocked:  “We weren’t caught off guard…we expected Otto to move on after this year.”  Coach Mark Turgeon knew it was time:  “Alex has been a pro since he set foot on campus…the way the practices, the way he takes care of himself”.  While the Hoyas and Terps would be much better next winter with Porter and Len, the lure of first round guaranteed money was too good to pass up.  Even if the 7-foot-1 Len turns out to be a project.  Even if Porter has trouble finding minutes or an ideal position for his skill set.  Each coach heralds their respective sophomore’s work ethic…which is a huge key in making the transition from college to pro basketball.  One hopes they find their way to solid organizations with non-cancerous locker rooms where they can learn, grow and thrive.

Masters– Ah, yes. Tiger’s drop and a 14 year old’s tardiness overshadowed the best weekend for an Australian since George Lazenby landed the role of James Bond.  Tiger tailed off after being in the hunt for most of the first two rounds. Was there golf karma in taking the longer drop? The US Open will be the fifth anniversary of Tiger’s most recent Major championship. Jack Nicklaus’ longest gap during his run?  He had two “droughts”– just under three years (1967-70) and just over five years (1980 PGA-1986 Masters).  One feels it’s only a matter of time before Woods wins another and with conditioning what it is now there appears to be a larger window for him to win 4 or 5 more– but for every Lee Trevino that wins a PGA at 45, there’s a Tom Watson who stops winning majors at 33.  Oh– and congratulations to Adam Scott for winning the tournament.

Standing Pat–  Broadcast legend Pat Summerall passes away at 82.  The voice of the NFL on CBS and FOX called 16 Super Bowls for the two networks over four decades.  His booming voice dominated game opens (check them out on youtube)… and his economy of words made him the perfect complement to John Madden.  In 1981, Summerall and Vin Scully were competing for the #1 play-by-play job at CBS and while Scully painted better word pictures, Summerall didn’t bring the easel as much as set the stage for Madden’s “BOOM’s” and the telestrator.  He said more in five words than most said in fifteen.  I fell for the NFL of Summerall/Madden.  And he made announcing something a 13 year old want to dream about doing.

To be honest, after the NFL Draft I kind of go into autopilot mode.  I’m removed enough from the college hoops and college football seasons to recharge my batteries– and although OTA’s will demand immediate attention, the Burgundy and Gold News service drops to “Maroon and Black” alert.  But what a weekend to begin the month of May…

Gone in six seconds– much like the end of The Usual Suspects defeat is snatched from the jaws of victory… as a high stick leads to a 3-2 deficit with the Capitals trying to avoid elimination instead of trying to clinch on home ice.  While the Ward penalty cost the Caps in the final minute of regulation and in overtime… the fact that they managed just 4 shots on goal in the first period can’t be ignored.  The fact that they missed a few chances to open up a two goal advantage in the third period but didn’t connect can’t be looked over.  And the fact that the Rangers entered the postseason as the second best team in the league has to make you realize that any mistake will be pounced on.  Can they rally at home?  The Caps are 2-3 at Verizon during the playoffs… but if there’s one trend to follow in the NHL Playoffs- it’s that often there are no trends.

Purpose Pitch– Thanks, Cole Hamels, for showing what a fearsome pitcher you are by hitting a 19 year old rookie and then bragging about it.  So much more street cred headed up I-95 now.  I’m fine with any pitcher hitting a batter (especially in the back as opposed to the head)– but the true masters of the mound state it was intentional without saying it was intentional (“Hey– I threw an inside pitch and it got away– he should know this isn’t AA Harrisburg.  We protect the plate here.  This isn’t some Junior College out west– this is Major League Baseball.”).  That would have sent the message.  Instead, Hamels pats himself on the back… as MLB pats him on the wallet. 

Meanwhile, the Nats get two big bats back in to the lineup (Zimmerman and LaRoche) while their bullpen burns a little bit.  Henry Rodriguez’s blown save at Pittsburgh the latest stomach punch.

Captain Obvious flies over Ashburn– to the surprise of very few people, the Redskins have named Robert Griffin III the team’s #1 quarterback.  Was this necessary now?  I think everybody figured RGIII would eventually lock down the starting job… now he’ll get the vast majority of the snaps immediately.  Will Rex Grossman be around in August or will the Skins find a better veteran to mentor.

Congratulations to “I’ll Have Another” for winning the Kentucky Derby– now we move on to the Preakness in less than two weeks.  I wish horse racing would enter the 21st century and gap the races better… in the 1890’s it wasn’t uncommon for 3 year olds to race two or even three times a month.  Now– a four or five week gap between starts is the norm for many.  Thus, the horses aren’t accustomed to 3 high stake races in 5 weeks… and the best case is Big Brown not having its best race in the 2008 Belmont.  The worst case is Barbaro shattering its leg at the 2006 Preakness.  So move the Preakness back a week or two… and do the same with the Belmont.  You’d have better rested horses and better racing.  I know it flies in the face of tradition… but the sports that are chained by yesteryear dwindle tomorrow.