Sunday, February 6, 2011

I'm a Crazy Person Who Drove 7 Hours for a Junior Hockey Game

 See the kid with the Fu Manchu mustache in the yellow? He ruined my night.

A few months ago, I butted into a friend's Twitter conversation. She and another friend (both live in Pittsburgh) were discussing heading up to Erie to see the Windsor Spitfires as they play the Otters on a Saturday in February. I interjected, saying I wanted to go, and so I bought the game tickets, reserved a rental car, and got a hotel room in Erie, Pennsylvania.

That Saturday arrived this past weekend. It was not only my first Windsor Spitfires game, but also my first junior hockey game.

I became a Windsor Spitfires fan about two years ago, in my first exposure to junior hockey: the 2009 Memorial Cup, broadcast on NHL Network. I think it was the Spitfires' color scheme that first attracted me: they sport the familiar red, white, and blue, with the same font used on the jerseys as the Capitals. They also reminded me of the Capitals in terms of playing style, with lots of offensive firepower, particularly the previous two years with Taylor Hall, Adam Henrique, Justin Shugg, and others in the lineup. They still retain arguably one of the best defensemen in the CHL, Ryan Ellis.

I set out early Saturday morning, and spent seven hours driving in the rain. Yuck. Seven hours and several cups of coffee later, I arrived in Erie to a light snow. I checked into my hotel and waited for a reasonable hour to head out to dinner. Well, it started snowing. A lot. By the time I set out for dinner and the game, the roads were covered, not plowed, and extremely slippery. My rental car was a Toyota Corolla. Not exactly a car made for snow.

It was a slidey trip over to Tullio Arena in downtown Erie. The arena reminded me of my high school gymnasium -- before its renovation in 2000. It was pretty old and rundown, but packed with a little over 5,400 very rabid fans. I headed down to rinkside as the warmups began.

You couldn't wipe the smile off my face. I'd only ever seen these guys on my TV or on my computer watching OHL Live. There was Ryan Ellis! Kenny RyanJack CampbellAlexander Khokhlachev (please draft him, Caps)!

After the too-short warmups, I met tweeps Erika and Devin for the first time, and we found our seats, four rows behind the Otters bench.

Ryan Ellis scored first in the first few minutes of the game, but after that, there wasn't much for us to cheer about. The Otters struck again and again, and Jack Campbell was pulled after the fifth Otters goal in the second period. He was replaced by Michael Nishi (new trade acquisition John Cullen apparently had the flu).  

Going into the third period, Zack Kassian, Alexander Khokhlachev, and Nick Ebert did not reappear on the ice (they were banished to the locker room for poor play). Brady Vail scored one late in the game for the Spits, but it was far too late. The Spits lost 8-2 as Otter Brett Thompson got a hat trick plus one, scoring four goals.  

Remember the Capitals 7-0 loss to the Rangers? Yeah, it pretty much felt like that.
So, not a great first time seeing the Spitfires. But I was still so happy to actually SEE them. It allowed me the chance to see things you don't get from a score sheet or from a pixelated computer broadcast with TV timeouts.  

Jack Campbell, after being pulled, didn't sulk in the corner of the bench. He was standing there leaning over the boards the rest of the game, opening the door for teammates as he intently watched the game.

Ryan Ellis proved himself to be the perfect choice for Spitfires captain in his final age-eligible season. He was constantly encouraging his teammates, offering constructive criticism when something went awry, and supporting his goaltender, most notably by skating over to Nishi after he'd allowed a goal and patting him on the head and offering words of encouragement. I can't wait to see Ellis in a Nashville Predators uniform.

Sunday, after making my first ever Tim Hortons stop at a location just down the street from my hotel (PS, coffee, delicious, amazing), I traipsed home, with a soundtrack provided by my phone's TuneIn Radio app. Which meant that I was able to listen to Kolbe call the 12:30 Capitals/Penguins game while I was on the road, and I listened to Michal Neuvirth and the Capitals gloriously shut out the Penguins 3-0 as I was passing just outside of Pittsburgh.

No, the trip wasn't exactly what I wanted, but it was worth it all the same. Next time, I'll just have to head out to the Spitfires' home WFCU Centre in Windsor, Ontario, and watch them win at home.

Photos from my trip are on flickr here.

Friday, February 4, 2011

The Concern Over the Capitals Goaltending Depth

Possible moment of injury: Sabourin on the ice after being run by Louis Robitaille Jan. 21 (photo by Kyle Mace)

For Hershey Bears fans, it was the tweet heard 'round the world.

timleone: Sabourin slated for knee surgery. Out 2-3 months.

With Braden Holtby still nursing a mild knee injury, the Washington Capitals goaltending depth suddenly went from average to nil. It's a big blow, as Dany Sabourin, after a tough start to the season, has been doing really well in the past two months, going 10-2 in December and January starts, with one shutout. The Bears called up Todd Ford and Jared DeMichiel from South Carolina. Ford, while he has AHL experience, is not exactly an AHL starting goaltender, and DeMichiel, on his first callup, has never played in an AHL game.

For a team sure to be in some tough playoff battles in a matter of months, it's bad news. It's also concerning when it comes to the Washington Capitals -- Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth have both missed games due to injury this year, and the prospect of calling up someone who played his last game in the ECHL doesn't exactly settle the nerves. Ford and DeMichiel will work in the short-term, but what about long-term?

Earlier today, South Carolina announced that they had signed goaltender Andrew Loewen of the SPHL in order to replace their losses in the crease. But should someone else suffer an injury, either in Hershey or in Washington, what can be done?

The recent re-emergence of Ray Emery, due to the timing of these injuries in Hershey, immediately comes to mind for me. Emery has successfully recovered from what could have been a career-ending hip injury, and has made it clear that he wants to get back on the ice. Obviously, he needs to get his start in the AHL to make sure that he is in top condition, and he's ready for the opportunity to play in the A

Rumors are that Philadelphia, Anaheim, and a third, unnamed team are looking at signing Emery. But given the situation in Hershey, it's not a stretch to suggest that the Capitals take a look at him. 

Emery is a very capable goalie, leading the Ottawa Senators to the Stanley Cup Finals in 2007. With all the hubbub surrounding the Capitals' postseason woes, he becomes even more of a viable long-term option.

Tim Leone, too, has made the suggestion, saying, "Ray Emery might loom as an intriguing long-term possibility. The free agent, who hasn’t played this season in the wake of hip surgery, is exploring playing opportunities to get back to the NHL and could theoretically use an AHL stint as a launching pad."

Sabourin is not yet scheduled for surgery, so his recovery timetable is still as unclear as can be. But should it be longer than expected (take a look at Patrick McNeill, who had surgery in the offseason and just returned in December), Ray Emery looks to be a very attractive option for a contract with the Capitals.

It's a tough but interesting situation in the Capitals organization's nets right now. Keep an eye on the Capitals front office, particularly around trade deadline time. There could be some goaltending shakeups in the works.

If the Capitals were to trade for a goalie or sign a free agent goalie, who would you like to see?  Let me know in the comments.