- The Washington Times - Monday, April 21, 2008

Viktor Kozlov is an elder statesman by Washington Capitals standards, but in contrast with most of the other veterans on the team, the 33-year-old has struggled in his career during the postseason.

When Caps coach Bruce Boudreau flipped his top two centers — Sergei Fedorov and Nicklas Backstrom — before Game 4, much of the media focus was on how the switch would affect Alex Ovechkin. Two games into the experiment, Kozlov is the wing on the top line who appears to have benefited the most from playing alongside Fedorov.

“The game can be pretty simple, if you see an open guy, just give him the puck and try to be open for him as well,” Kozlov said. “Sergei is pretty good at that. He sees the ice so well and gives it to you at the right moment, the right time.”

Kozlov has just one assist in the two games since the change, but it was a pretty feed to Fedorov for the Caps’ second goal Saturday afternoon. Still, after being largely ineffective in the first three games of the team’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with the Philadelphia Flyers, Kozlov has clearly been better in Games 4 and 5.

The knock on Kozlov throughout his career is he doesn’t put his 6-foot-4, 224-pound frame to good enough use, and his production in the playoffs (zero goals and three assists in 14 postseason games before this season) is prime fodder for his critics.

But Kozlov has been more willing to finish checks the past two games. He also has been great at times working below the goal line on offense, using his strength to ward off defenders to help cycle and control the puck.

He played for his native Russia in four world championships, a World Cup and at an Olympic Games, but this is his first experience skating on the same line with Fedorov.

“Everybody was excited, he is a great player,” Kozlov said of the trade for Fedorov in late February. “You can learn lots of things from him.”

Added Boudreau: “Other teams don’t know what they are talking about when they are on the ice. … I don’t know, Viktor is not exactly a spring chicken either, so they probably can identify with each other.”

Kozlov is not alone in benefiting from the change. Backstrom and Alexander Semin — the other top-six forwards most directly affected by the center exchange — have looked like different players as well. After spending most of Boudreau’s tenure skating alongside Ovechkin, Backstrom struggled through the first three games with the added physical pressure and defensive attention the team’s top line was accruing.

The 20-year-old rookie has had to adjust to another Russian’s unique style, but he has had more space to operate during five-on-five situations and looks more like the player who is a likely finalist for the Calder Trophy after a stellar freshman campaign.

“You have to change when things aren’t working,” Backstrom said. “It is a little different. When I pass to [Ovechkin] he is shooting like almost every time. With [Semin], he wants to keep the puck longer and make some moves. It is a little different, but I like to play with them both.”

Then there is Semin, who might have taken the biggest step forward of anyone on the Caps roster during the past two games. The mercurial sniper has a goal and an assist in each of the past two games, and his six points in the series are tops among the team’s forwards.

He also has been a physical presence, engaging in a post-whistle scuffle in the opening moments of both games and continuing to be willing to hit people throughout. While he hasn’t completely eradicated his turnover troubles, he has reduced the number of silly passes and fruitless forays alone against three or four defenders.

Boudreau even said he “looked like a warrior out there” after Game 4, a phrase few coaches, if any, have ever used to describe Semin’s play.

“He’s not backing down. He’s making a statement,” forward Brooks Laich said. “They came in at the start of the series wanting to rough him up thinking he would go away, and he hasn’t. He hasn’t backed down and he’s pushing back.

“He’s been awesome for us right now. He’s going into the traffic areas, he’s shooting pucks, he’s taking cross-checks — he is doing things that maybe he wasn’t used to doing before.”

Ovechkin’s offensive numbers have not returned to his regular-season pace, but he did have his best game of the series Saturday afternoon without registering a point. He still has only one goal and five points in the five games, but another effort like had in Game 5 could certainly lead to a breakout performance.

He had six shots on net — and maybe more importantly only three misfires — and drew a pair of penalties, including the one that led to the game-winning power-play goal by Semin. Ovechkin was also on the ice for all three Washington goals, and played a role in two of them.

“They pay so much attention to [Ovechkin] — he attracts two of their guys, three of their guys,” Laich said. “They concentrate so much on shutting him down, it opens stuff up for other guys.”

Today’s game


When: 7 p.m.

Where: Wachovia Center, Philadelphia

TV/radio: CSN, FM-106.7

Goalies: Capitals — Cristobal Huet (2-3, 3.14). Flyers — Martin Biron (3-2, 2.59).

Injuries: Capitals — Out: C Michael Nylander (torn rotator cuff), RW Chris Clark (groin), D Brian Pothier (concussion). Doubtful: D Jeff Schultz (back spasms). Flyers — Out: RW Mike Knuble (hamstring), LW Simon Gagne (concussion), D Mike Rathje (hip/back).

Outlook: Schultz practiced again yesterday but does not expect to play. The Caps have scored 14 goals in this series and all but two have come from the kids. Donald Brashear and Sergei Fedorov have the lone goals scored by someone older than 24. Mike Green leads the team with three goals and seven points, which were both tops among defensemen going into last night’s action. While Alex Ovechkin had six shots on net in Game 5, it is Alexander Semin who leads the team in that category with 20.



Pressure and pace: The Capitals’ youth was a disadvantage early in the series. But the Flyers couldn’t close out the Caps in Game 5, and now that youth can become an advantage.

Flyers defensemen Derian Hatcher and Jason Smith failed to make an impact the past two games, and the Caps’ forwards have found they can be had on the forecheck and cycle game.

The Caps tonight need another first period like the one they delivered in Game 5. The longer this series goes, the more fatigue could become an issue for the older Flyers.


A renewed sense of urgency: Sure, the Flyers essentially had a game to give and nearly stole it with a strong second half, but now is the time to finish this series.

The Flyers caught a break with the past two games in the District being matinees. If they don’t win tonight at home, however, the Flyers will face a crazy Verizon Center crowd tomorrow night.

The Flyers protected their home ice well in the first two games in Philadelphia, and they need Game 6 to be no different.

Corey Masisak

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