In the spirit of the season, I offer a list of 10 things I’m thankful for while commissioned in the Red Army this fall.
(10) The Moxie of Matt Hendricks. The longshot training camp candidate won a checking line center’s job with solid play and especially an ethos of holding Caps’ opponents accountable for their misdeeds directed at his teammates. Late in preseason Boston’s Greg Campbell took some end-boards liberties with the Capitals’ captain in a game, and in a rematch the next night in Beantown Hendricks signaled that the 2010-11 Caps would skate with a little more snarl and swagger: at the opening draw Hendricks dropped ‘em with Campbell, exacting some much-needed frontier justice for his club.
“He didn’t need to be told,” Bruce Boudreau said of Hendricks’ actions that night. “He just watched the game [Tuesday] night and knew what he had to do. I thought, ‘What a team thing [to do].’ It was great.”
(9) A third-pairing profile of effort and courage: John Erskine. Erskine’s career in D.C. has been inconsistent — there have been indications that he’s improved from journeyman status, and rightfully and reliably earned a regular spot on the team’s third-pairing blueline unit, but also fits where his lack of footspeed and limited skillset have been emblematic of a rearguard corps that lacks depth. This season, however, Erskine’s been relatively consistent, effectively physical, and even authored a pair of highlight-reel scores from the point. And for good measure he’s dropped ‘em when his team has needed him to, and he brought a fanbase to its collective feet with this stunning slow-dance with Atlanta’s Eric Boulton on November 14:
(8) An Opening Night of Old Time Hockey. The Caps had 20 fighting majors in 2009-10. In the third period of their home opener October 9 — a 7-2 trouncing of New Jersey — they met 20 percent of that tally. And even without D.J. King in the lineup much the Caps have shown more than a willingness to play it rough and tumble.
(7) The continued candor of Bruce Boudreau. In the postgame of the Caps’ 4-2 victory over Buffalo on November 17, in which his team held a commanding 3-0 lead and could have potentially built on it with some obvious power play opportunities the officials ignored, Bruce Boudreau told media that the evening’s referees “reffed the score.” In an era of scripted soundbite and formulaic drivel from athletes and coaches alike, Gabby nightly holds court after games and thoughtfully analyzes the evening’s action. He’s unvarnished. He’s a delight. And, he also makes some endearing Mercedes Benz commercials.
(6) The no. 2 netminder: an actual no. 1? His play has cooled off a bit from a torrid October, but Michal Neuvirth, pressed into duty by a lingering leg injury to Semyon Varlamov, is by many estimates a co-MVP through the first quarter of the season along with Alexander Semin. He was named October’s Rookie of the Month. When both young goalies are healthy the Caps ought to be the benfeciaries of a spirited competiton for no. 1 come spring.
(5) That ‘other Alex’ is our best Alex this season — where would the Caps be sans Semin? To re-sign or not to re-sign? The first-quarter play of Alexander Semin (14 goals, 12 assists in 22 games) is making it exceedingly difficult for Caps’ fans to imagine a Cup-contending team without him. He’s been a fixture in the top 5 of league scoring since late October, and nine of his 14 goals have come at even strength. Additionally, we’ve seen maturation from him in his own end. Comcast Sportsnet hockey analyst Alan May this fall called Semin the team’s best defensive player.
His presence allows Bruce Boudreau to form a dream line of high octane production for a Caps’ team that finds itself trailing late in games, a factor Semin critics ought to consider as his free agency looms. Inexplicably, and indefensibly, Semin was left off the NHL’s All-Star ballot for fans. There is however a write-in campaign for him on Twitter (#WriteInSemin).
(4) The Hockey Hall of Fame welcomes the original and iconic voice of Capitals hockey, Ron Weber. It’s always great seeing a member of the Capitals’ family enshrined in the Hall, but there was something distinctly uplifting about Weber’s honor. This is what I wrote about the moment: “His calls were iconoclastic in their detail, illuminated by his trademark fluency with all manner of statistical analysis. He voice also bore a familial warmth; indeed, it wasn’t unusual, Weber told us, among the thousands of appreciative letters he received over the course of his career to read of a displaced Washingtonian detailing a night in which clear skies brought his Caps’ calls far up the Eastern seaboard on WTOP’s powerful signal.”
(3) Must-See holiday season TV: HBO’s chronicles the Caps and Pens in the leadup to the 2011 Winter Classic. It was an otherwise non-descript day at Captials’ training camp in September when all media present at Kettler were summoned to a surprise briefing, one announcing the Capitals’ participation in the HBO series ’24/7.’ The Caps — our Caps — a storyline for a highly regarded documentary? Yep. ’24/7′ made a portly New York Jets football coach a household name (except in my household). George McPhee apparently became a big fan of that series and this cable outlet’s craftsmanship with sports documentaries. He pledged “unfettered access” to HBO cameras. Wow. The inaugural episode airs December 15, and the four-part documentary will culminate in early January with an insider’s account of the Winter Classic itself.
(2) Quality depth in net. The Caps have used all three prized young goaltenders early on in 2010-11, and all three have offered evidence backing management’s optimism about them. In the offseason, some in media suggested that the Caps would do well to shop for a pricey veteran backstopper, but relative to other needs (a reliable second line center; a physical, shutdown blueliner), that’s well down the list of priorities, thanks to the play of the kids in pads.
(1) Having a hockey-lover own all of Washington’s winter sports empire. Changes in both the appearance and function of Verizon Center have been swift since Ted Leonsis assumed ownership of the building and its pro sports tenants in the offseason. Foremost among them: it actually feels like a hockey game in there now, even in early autumn. It’s cold! But the formation of Monumental Sports & Entertainment hasn’t altered the owner’s accessibility with fans one bit. I can attest; I’ve heard from him (spiritedly!) with most of constructive criticisms of the team I’ve authored this fall.