Friday, April 18, 2008

This isn't the first time...

The past few days, you couldn't swing a dead cat without a review of the play of Alex Ovechkin that suggested (without using the word) that he's been a flop in his maiden playoff appearance.

To refresh one's memory, Ovechkin is 1-4-5, -3, in four games thus far (we'll leave out that he's also been credited with 26 hits in four games, which might be more hits than the Nats have so far this season).

But let's go back to another player, in another time. He, too, struggled in his maiden NHL playoff appearance...

...three games, two goals, one assist, no wins (although two games in the three-game sweep were settled in overtime).

The player?...Wayne Gretzky

The opponent?...The Philadelphia Flyers

Game 4: Flyers 4 - Caps 3 (2OT)

What is wrong with this picture?...

It captures the Capitals’ performance in a nutshell. The right people, in the wrong place, at the wrong time.

Why is Alex Ovechkin in this shot and not a defenseman?

Why is Mike Knuble all alone?

The Capitals were pushed to the brink of elimination last night by the Philadelphia Flyers, who took a 3-1 lead in games after a 4-3 double-overtime win over the Caps in Philadelphia.

It might not have been a heroic effort on the part of the Caps, but it was close. After taking a punch in the nose 42 seconds into the game, courtesy of Jeff Carter, the Caps came right back with a goal by Nicklas Backstrom – his first of the series – making Bruce Boudreau look like a genius for switching him with Sergei Fedorov between the top two forward lines.

In fact, the game was unfolding pretty much the way a Caps fan might have hoped. The Backstrom goal converted the first power play the Caps had in this game (and was scored on an assist from the well-attended Ovechkin). They took a lead on a goal (another power play) from Alexander Semin – a player who had to lift his game in light of what the Flyers were doing to neutralize Ovechkin. Even when the Flyers scored late in the first to tie a wild first period, the Caps responded with a goal from the most unlikely of sources – Steve Eminger.

But the team with the seventh-best record in the NHL when leading after two periods this year could not hold that 3-2 lead. The team that was 21st in the league when trailing after two periods – four wins in 32 games – found a way to tie the game…on a power play…after a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty, the second such infraction of the game. And the goal was scored by, who else, Daniel Briere, who up to that point seemed to be trying to do his level best to give the Caps the game on a platter, having taken three minor penalties of the incredibly silly variety before the game was 13 minutes old.

Almost 44 minutes later, there was Knuble at the doorstep, whacking in a loose puck. It might have been a hammer driving a stake into the Capitals’ hopes of winning this series.

The Capitals did a lot of things right, and got them from a lot of different places…

- Alex Ovechkin had 10 hits

- Tom Poti had five blocked shots

- Boyd Gordon won 12 of 18 draws

- Nicklas Backstrom had six shots – tying his high for the year and coming on the heels of only one shot in each of the first three games -- to go with his goal and an assist.

- Milan Jurcina had four blocked shots

- Huet had his best game of the series, stopping 42 of 46 shots

But the Caps were less than the sum of their parts tonight, because there were things they didn’t do, too…

- Ovechkin was held to one shot on goal, none in the last 51:16 of the game.

- The normally reliable David Steckel lost nine of 12 draws.

- Viktor Kozlov was quiet…again (no points, although he did have five shots…he is 0-0-0, -5 for the series)

- Sergei Fedorov was 0-0-0, -2 and is 0-0-0, -4 in three games since recording his lone point in the series (an assist) in Game 1.

- Shaone Morrisonn and Mike Green were a combined -5 – Morrisonn was on the ice for each of the Flyers’ four goals (lingering effects from his “upper body” injury sustained a couple of weeks ago?).

What is especially frustrating about this series is that in no game – not even game three – have the Caps been thoroughly dominated by the Flyers. The Flyers have been better – not by much, but just enough and consistently so. There is that hump in each game that the Caps just haven’t been able to clear. Last night it might have been converting on the second half of the 5-on-3 advantage they had in the first that could have put them up 3-1 in the first period and put the Flyers on their heels. What the Caps are learning – the hard way, to be sure – is that you don’t get a lot of chances at playoff time. You’d better convert the ones you get…

…just ask Mike Knuble.

There are three names from the Caps’ past to keep in mind now…Kevin Hatcher, Bengt Gustafsson, and Dale Hunter.

They were the scorers of the game winning goals the last time the Caps faced a 1-3 deficit to the Flyers in a playoff series. Who will be this year’s Hatcher, Gustafsson, and Hunter?