[AP Preview - WashingtonCaps.com Preview]
When George McPhee stepped to the podium late last June to make the Caps' first selection in the 2007 NHL Entry Draft (fifth overall), many an expert thought he'd be calling the name of London Knights pivot Sam Gagner. McPhee didn't take Gagner, however (though it sounded like he might, up to and after the last second), he took Karl Alzner who, by all accounts, is having a terrific year (one that includes captaining Canada to a World Junior Championship gold and tallying 21 points and a plus-13 rating in 34 games for the WHL Calgary Hitmen), leaving young Sammy on the board to be snatched up with the next pick by Thursday night's visitors to the Verizon Center, the Edmonton Oilers (who, incidentally, haven't won in D.C. since January 26, 1997, a span that has included five Caps wins).
And while Alzner racks up the accolades and achievements, Gagner is making a name for himself as well in the best League in the world. In 44 NHL games, Dave's son has 3 goals, 13 assists and a minus-12 rating. Unfortunately for Gagner, seven of those points came in his first eight NHL games - he has scored just two goals and registered seven assists in his last 37 games and is pointless since December 13 (a span of 12 games). Perhaps Kevin Lowe is regretting the decision to keep Sam in Edmonton this year rather than sending him back to London. Maybe not. One thing is for certain, however - it's not the only decision that Lowe has made in the past year that has had people scratching their heads (for a fun stroll down memory lane, check out all our coverage of The Nylander Saga - some of our best work of last year, if I do say so myself).
But for all the criticism - justifiable and otherwise - Lowe's Oilers are a hot streak away from being right back in the thick of the playoff hunt in the West, thanks in large part to a breakout season from Shawn Horcoff (who is a hat trick away from tying his career high in goals), the sheer offensive wizardry of Ales Hemsky (who also starred in one of my favorite YouTube clips ever), and the revelation that has been Mathieu Garon (14-10-1, 2.37, .918 for a guy whose career numbers entering this season were 60-56-9-3, 2.87, .903).
Of course, you don't find yourself near the bottom of the Conference standings without your fair share of disappointments. Take, for example, Jarret Stoll. After averaging better than .80 points per game and a plus-three rating in the first two post-lockout ssasons, Stoll is disappointing both on and off the ice this year, with only 21 points in 46 games, a minus-12 rating, and one Alexei Yashin (it should be noted, however, that Stoll has been better of late... on the ice, at least). Free agents Dustin Penner (who also has stepped his game up in recent weeks) and Sheldon Souray have combined for 37 points in 68 man-games, and have done so at a cap hit of $9.65 million for the year (not to mention the first, second and third round picks in the 2008 draft that the Oilers will be providing Anaheim with as compensation for signing Penner). Dwayne Roloson - one of only three NHL goaltenders older than Olie Kolzig - is 7-12-3, 3.12, .901. Steve Staios is minus-13. Geoff Sanderson has two goals. You get the point.
On the season, the Oilers are near the very bottom of the League in goals per game, goals against average (though theirs is a fifth of a goal per game better than the Caps'), shots per game and power play percentage and have lost their last four road games. In other words, this is a very winnable game for the Caps, who have to keep winning the games they should win - which is probably exactly how the Oilers are thinking about this game as well. Let's just hope the Caps can finish things off in regulation - Edmonton has a League-high 12 wins in games that have been tied after sixty minutes, including an 11-2 record in shootouts.
Why The Oilers Will Win:
"As self-loathing Oilers fans (are there any other kinds, lately?), we believe the Edmonton Oilers will absolutely DESTROY the Washington Capitals in Thursday night's match-up. Why? Three words: Puppy Dog Eyes. After looking into the sad, sad faces of our young, floundering squad, the Caps hearts will be left broken and empty. We'll then go ahead and fill that void with goals, and plenty of them. Now who's crying? Nylander for one, but that's a whole other story. So stuff that in your pipes and smoke it you Washington fat cats, what with your smug Ovechkin having fanbase..." - Oilblobosphere
"[T]he Oilers already traded away their prize for finishing dead last this season so the Oilers don't have quite as much motivation to lose as the Caps." - The Real Deal Hockey
"Part of me wants to say karma after Nylander screwed Edmonton over and ended up in Washington. However, I actually like the Capitals and their very interactive owner. As a result I'll focus on where I think Edmonton has true advantages. First of all, both Oiler goaltenders have performed better than Kolzig this year. Garon especially is one of the hottest goalies in the league while Kolzig has struggled to regain his form. Edmonton has a better defensive core as well. The Caps have a couple of guys I'd love to see in the copper and blue (Green for one is outstanding) but 1-6 Edmonton has more depth. Up front there's no Ovechkin in the Oilers line-up, but a two-way forward group that includes Horcoff, Moreau and Pisani is a significant step ahead of the group in Washington. They should be much better at even strength and on the penalty kill, while Washington's forwards are more explosive and should be better on the power play. Finally, Edmonton has a veteran coach while the Caps are coached by an NHL rookie. - Oil Country, Ontario
Elsewhere 'Round the Rinks:
An article on Horn Guy.... Hey, guys, it's not too late for you all to chip in and get me a birthday present.... This YouTube clip is obviously old, but it's new to me and is worth checking out if only to see Alex Semin not only smile, but laugh as well (h/t SSM12 on the link).
- Hart: Rick DiPietro (W, 37 saves on 38 shots against)
Ross: Patrick Kane, Kimmo Timonen, Dustin Byfuglien (3 points each)
Norris: Kimmo Timonen (G, 2A, +1, 2 SOG)
Vezina: Rick DiPietro (W, 37 saves on 38 shots against)
Richard: Patrick Kane, Bill Guerin, Daniel Briere (2G each)
Calder: Patrick Kane (2G, A, +2, 3 SOG)
Aiken: Marek Schwarz (L, 5 goals allowed on 13 shots against in 38:55 of work)