Sunday, April 26, 2009

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 6: Caps 5 - Rangers 3


If you’re a hitter in major league baseball, that’s a helluva slugging percentage. If you’re an NBA basketball player, it’s a passable free throw shooting percentage. If you’re an NFL quarterback, it’s a fantastic completion percentage.

If you’re an NHL goalie, and that’s your save percentage, you suck.

And yet, that is Henrik Lundqvist’s save percentage (nine goals allowed on 34 shots) in the last two games, the latter being a 5-3 win by the Caps to force a Game 7 on Tuesday night at Verizon Center. He was pulled in both contests, the first time in his career he was pulled in consecutive games.

One could say that the Caps have found that hole they’ve been looking for on Lundqvist – high glove (gee, as if there isn’t a goaltender who can’t be beaten there), but that would be simplistic. What the Caps have done is create space for shooters to get shots off before Lundqvist can get square to the shot. And, the Caps have crowded Lundqvist’s crease to manage getting opportunities from in tight.

Of the former, nothing illustrated that more than the first two Capitals goals of the game. Milan Jurcina scored the first of them when he collected a pass and without a Ranger impeding the path launched a shot past Lundqvist on the glove side. But that was merely the end of a process. It started with Brooks Laich harassing Nikolai Zherdev along the far wall, enough that Zherdev coughed up the puck, whereupon Matt Bradley took control of it, sidestepping Zherdev and nudging the biscuit down the wall to David Steckel. With his back to the play, Steckel flicked the puck to Laich, who had circled back into the play. Laich slid it across to Jurcina, and before defenseman Paul Mara could recover to get into the shooting lane, Jurcina let fly for the goal. It started with pressure in the Ranger zone and kept the defense from establishing their shot blocking stance that has been so important to the Rangers in nullifying the Caps offense for much of the series.

The second goal – off the stick of Mike Green – involved the sort of random chance that occurs on power plays. Tom Poti backpedalled with the puck from the left wing point to the top of the Ranger zone, then fed Alexander Semin in the left win g faceoff circle. Semin hitched, then fired, the puck deflecting out to Green on the other side of the play. No Ranger was in a position to challenge Green, and without that sort of challenge, Green launched a shot that beat Lundqvist…on the glove side.

After that, it was the Capitals’ transition game that was on display. First, Marc Staal was pinned along the left wing boards with nowhere to go and no puck in his possession. It left Dan Girardi alone to defend a 3-on-1 breaking the other way, Tom Poti leading David Steckel and Boyd Gordon the other way. Poti fed Gordon in the middle, who pushed the puck off to Steckel, who threaded a pass to Poti at the near post, and it was all over before Lundqvist could step back across to keep the puck out of the net.

The second instance was much more basic. Tom Poti collected the puck in the far corner of the defensive zone and pushed it ahead to Viktor Kozlov at the Capitals’ line. Kozlov skated out of the zone, pushing Marc Staal off as he sped (or at least as much as Kozlov “speeds”) toward the Ranger end. At the Ranger line, Kozlov pulled the puck inside, and Staal got his feet scrambled, allowing Kozlov to cut for the net. Just before crashing into Lundqvist, Kozlov lifted the puck over the sprawled goalie, and the rout was on.

All that was left was a pretty deflection by Alex Ovechkin of a Tom Poti drive, and some window dressing stat padding for the Rangers. And all of a sudden, from a 3-1 hole, the Caps have a chance – a chance, mind you – to win a game 7 for only the second time in franchise history after being down 3-1.

Other stuff…

- Nikolai Zherdev was, to be charitable, awful. Between his shying away from a Brooks Laich hit that led directly to the Jurcina goal to missing an open net on a backhand when the score was still only 3-1 nine minutes into the second period, Zherdev had a difficult time. For the series he has no points and is a minus-3.

- Scott Gomez had a nice deflection off a Wade Redden shot from the point for a Ranger goal and assisted on a goal by Ryan Callahan, but he continued his own difficulties, finishing the afternoon having been on the ice for two goals – going minus-2 – and losing 11 of 19 draws.

- Much was made at the start of this series about Marc Staal and Dan Girardi getting the assignment of defending the Caps’ big guns. That defensive pair was on the ice for goals three, four, and five for the Caps.

- Let’s face it though…eight power plays allowed (including two 5-on-3 situations) is a recipe for disaster against most teams, even the Rangers in a Game 7. The Caps took a whopping 11 minor penalties and spent a total of 12:29 shorthanded.

- OK, so… a Shaone Morrisonn hat trick is what… a hit, a penalty, and a chomp?

- Simeon Varlamov has been very good. He hasn’t been called upon to be great, at least not very often, and today was another case in point. In the five games in which Varlamov has played, he has faced only 130 shots. Today he faced 32, but only allowed one goal on the first 24 shots he faced, when the game was still in doubt, and only 23 shots came at even strength. The Caps have been playing pretty well in front of him. But his stop on Brandon Dubinsky on a 2-on-1 after Dubinsky screwed John Erskine into the ice at the blue line with a move was huge. The Caps scored the first goal of the game immediately after the ensuing TV time out.

- The Rangers have a total of six goals on those 130 shots, half of them coming in this game, and two of those long after the competitive portion of the afternoon had been completed.

- In the past two games Alex Ovechkin has played “only” 20:21 and 20:50 of ice time. As if he needs more energy.

- At the other end, John Erskine passed the 20 minute ice time mark for the first time in the series. It was the most ice time he’s had since getting 21:21 against Pittsburgh on January 14th and is the second highest ice time mark he’s had this year.

- The Rangers were 5-for-18 on defensive zone draws. Wrong way to stop a team that has found its offensive stroke.

- This was the first four-point game for Tom Poti since February 19, 2004, when he registered four assists as his Rangers beat the Islanders, 6-2. Surprisingly, Poti was not one of the three stars of that game (Jaromir Jagr, Matthew Barnaby, Mike Dunham).

- Picking up on a theme we noted in the pregame, Henrik Lundqvist is now 1-5, 3.99, .870 in playoff games past Game Four of a series for his career.

- We’ll be very surprised if Donald Brashear dresses for Game 7. The hit on Blair Betts was suspension-worthy. There just isn’t any way to sugar coat it or explain it away. Betts was vulnerable in open ice, did not have the puck, and got blindsided by Brashear. It was an ugly footnote to an otherwise excellent Capitals performance on the road.

- It’s worth noting that Brashear’s day ended, not on the Betts hit, but upon his taking a hooking penalty 3:53 into the second period. He served his time, skated back across to the Caps bench upon its expiration, and did not see the ice again.

Before the series started, Rangers coach John Tortorella said that “home ice only comes into effect in Game 7." Well, here we are. One game – in Washington’s arena – for the right to play in May. But this is, as we harped on early, first to four, not first to three. And that fourth one – as the Caps so painfully learned last year – is the hardest of all to win. We’re going to find out if that was a lesson learned well, because if the Caps play as well and with as much focus as they have shown in Games Five and Six, the ending should be much more to the liking of the boys and their fans than was the case last year.

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