Sunday, July 12, 2009

Ten Games That Mattered In 2008-2009, Part III

Here we are with another three-fer in the look at games that mattered in 2008-2009, a trio of games against a pair of traditional rivals, calling back memories of old Patrick Division scraps…

Washington at Philadelphia, March 12, 2009

The result: Capitals 2 – Flyers 1

The background: The Flyers were on a nice run – 10-4-1 since losing the first game of February to Boston. The streak included a 4-2 win over the Caps in Washington, keeping alive a streak of not having lost to the Caps in regulation this season (2-0-1). There were a couple of competing subplots to this on the Caps’ side of the contest. On the one hand, Washington was having a difficult March – they had lost four in a row to start the month before squeezing out a 2-1 overtime win in Nashville. On the other hand, that win in Nashville was the Caps’ fourth road win in a row. Which Caps team would show up was the question.

Why it mattered: The Flyers were very possibly a team that the Caps would have to face in the playoffs. If there was a time for a message – that the Caps could compete and do so on Flyer ice – this was the time. It was hardly a dominating performance, and not even an especially good road game in terms of style. The Caps were outshot, 36-30. They lost 32 of 48 draws. They were outhit 24-18. But they got goals from Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin, and they got one of the best performances of the year from Jose Theodore in goal (35 saves on 36 shots).

The takeaway: It was the first time since March 6, 2001 that the Caps had won five straight road games. For a team that spent five straight years not winning more than 15 road games (until winning 20 in 2007-2008), it was an important statement that they could win on the road and in a difficult place for opponents to do so. The Caps would go on to win 21 games on the road for the season, tied for second most in club history (22, 1983-1984).

New York Rangers at Washington, April 18, 2009

The result: Rangers 1 – Capitals 0

The background: The Capitals were, if not a prohibitive favorite, then certainly a solid one to eliminate the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs. However, the playoffs are at least as often as not a goaltender’s time of year. A hot goalie can steal a series, as any Caps fan of long-standing can attest. The flip side of that is that if a goalie is not on his game, the margin of error is so small in the playoffs that winning a series becomes iffy at best. Both sides of the coin were on display in Game 1 of the opening round series – Henrik Lundqvist stopped 32 of 35 shots for the Rangers, while Jose Theodore managed only 17 saves on 21 shots for the Caps in a 4-3 Rangers win. Given that Theodore limped into the playoffs, allowing three or more goals in four of his last five regular season games against bottom feeders Tampa Bay, the Islanders, Atlanta, and Florida, it was an ominous sign and raised the possibility of a change in goal for Game 2.

Why it mattered: Bruce Boudreau rolled the dice, to the surprise of the Verizon Center crowd, sending Semyon Varlamov out for Game 2. It was a calculated gamble. Varlamov had only six games of regular season experience, but in five starts he was 4-0-1 and did not allow more than two goals in any of them. Still, the playoffs are a different animal, but here to, Varlamov had some experience to draw on. In 22 playoff game appearances for Lokomotiv Yarloslavl in Russia over two seasons, he had a 2.00 goals against average and five shutouts. At the highest level at which he played before the NHL, he was successful in a playoff setting. And the gamble paid off in this one, even though the Caps did not win the game. The Rangers scored on their second shot of the contest – Ryan Callahan converting a two-on-one – but would add no more. Varlamov stopped 23 of 24 shots overall, and if not for the brilliance of his counterpart, Henrik Lundqvist (who stopped all 35 shots he faced for the shutout), would have been a winner in his NHL playoff debut.

The takeaway: Varlamov added to the evidence that his brief experience – wildly successful as it was – was no fluke. It was the sixth straight start in which he allowed two goals or fewer (a streak that would grow to nine before this series was over). And if the Caps hadn’t yet stopped the bleeding in this series, at least they gave evidence that momentum – something they showed they could capture when things looked like they could take a gruesome turn in the regular season – was once more bending in their direction.

New York Rangers at Washington, April 28, 2009

The result: Capitals 2 – Rangers 1

The background: The Caps had not won a seven-game series since defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in the Patrick Division semi-finals in 1988. Coincidentally, the Capitals won that series after fighting off a 3-1 deficit to force a Game 7. So it would be in this game, the Caps riding the unexpected goaltending of Semyon Varlamov (five goals allowed in four games and two shutouts) to force the deciding contest. After winning Games 1 and 2, the Rangers’ offense went silent – five goals (two of those scored after the competitive portion of Game 6 ended after the Caps built a 5-1 lead through two periods) and 2-for-21 on the power play. The spice added to this game was the return of John Tortorella behind the Ranger bench. Tortorella took a seat in the stands after earning a one-game suspension for having squirted water into the Verizon Center crowd in Game 5 and tossing a water bottle over the glass into the stands. Six times the Caps had played in a Game 7, and in no such instance had they allowed fewer than three goals. Would Varlamov succumb to the curse of Game 7?

Why it mattered: All year, the Caps showed an ability to come back in games, even from multi-goal deficits. In this one, things started ugly… the Rangers registered the first five shots on goal, including a breakaway by Nik Antropov in the first minute. Caps fans might be forgiven if the beginning of this game looked like too many deciding playoff games from the Caps’ past. It got worse when Antropov snapped the puck past Varlamov in the game’s sixth minute on that fifth shot by the Rangers. But Varlamov shut the door on the visitors after that to allow the Caps to get their legs under them. Then fate, being fickle and heretofore not a Caps fan, smiled on the home team. Nicklas Backstrom carried the puck down the left wing and left it for Alexander Semin at the top of the faceoff circle. Semin wrong-footed a wrister than hit the shaft of the stick of a diving Ryan Callahan, then the puck hit Callahan again as it was going by, fluttering under Henrik Lundqvist’s glove and over his left pad to tie the game. You’d search a long time to find a goal like that scored by the Caps in a deciding playoff game. After that it was a goaltender’s game – again, the sort the Caps never could find a way to win when it mattered in the playoffs – but it was two different sorts of performances by the goalies. Lundqvist was peppered frequently by the Caps (22 shots in the last two periods), while Varlamov had to fight the tendency to lose focus with so few shots thrown his way (seven in the last two periods). Would Lundqvist blink, or would Varlamov let one slip by between yawns? It was a blink late in the third that decided things, when Sergei Fedorov scurried down the right side, slammed on the brakes, used defenseman Wade Redden as a screen, and rifled a wrist shot over Lundqvist’s glove on the short side for the winning margin.

The takeaway: For only the second time in Caps’ history, they won a Game 7. For the first time in Caps’ history, they allowed fewer than three goals in a Game 7. For the first time a long time, dating back to the 1998 playoff run to the Stanley Cup final, fans could say that it was the other team that faced the hot goaltender in a deciding game (well, the series, actually). For the first time since that playoff run 11 years ago, the Caps won a playoff series of any sort. And there was more than a whisper comparing Semyon Varlamov – 4-2 in the series, 1.17 GAA, .952 save percentage, and two shutouts – with Cam Ward (a rookie who led the Carolina Hurricanes to a Stanley Cup in 2006) and Ken Dryden (a first year player – he would be a “rookie” the following year – who led the Montreal Canadiens to a Stanley Cup after playing in only six regular season games in 1971).

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