Thursday, April 16, 2009

On the other hand...

...since the Caps defeated Buffalo in Game 2 of the 1998 Eastern Conference finals, the Caps are 4-13 on home ice in the playoffs.

Isn't home ice supposed to be, advantage?

Return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear...

...From out of the past come the thundering slapshots of the men in red. The Washington Capitals skate again!

OK, so this isn't The Lone Ranger. But we will, for a moment, look back to yesteryear and to another series that started in Verizon Center, two games that kicked off the Eastern Conference quarterfinals...

The Capitals split two games against a sturdy goaltender (2.24 GAA, .914 save percentage for the year while pitching six shuouts and winning 30 games), the loss -- coincidentally enough -- by a 4-3 margin.

After splitting those first two games at home, the Caps went on the road and swept their opponent in their rink. The adventure wasn't over, though ...the Caps came home and lost -- again -- at home. But then they went on the road once more and won the game and the series.

The opponent...the Boston Bruins

The goalie...Byron Dafoe

The year...1998.

You remember what happened that year, don't you?

OK, the Caps don't have Olaf Kolzig standing on his head in goal like they did then. But then again, that team didn't have Alex Ovechkin, either.

Even if you want to go back further -- to 1988 and what a lot of Caps fans think is the signature playoff series in franchise history -- the Caps lost game 1 to the Flyers at home in the Patrick Division semifinals. They went down 3-1 in games after losing both games in Philadelphia. But then they pounded the Flyers in two games before setting up a Game 7 -- where they found themselves in a 3-0 hole. The Caps came back to finish the game like this...“…Murphy starts the rush… he hits Hunter…he’s in alone…a shot…and a goal!!!!!"

The point is, there are many minutes to play and many shifts to skate before this series is over. Who knows where they will lead?

Eastern Quarterfinals Game 1: Rangers 4 - Caps 3

It’s first to “four,” not first to “one.”

It’s first to “four,” not first to “one.”

Repeat after me… it’s first to “four,” not first to “one.”

Hey, Peerless? It’s also a three-period game, not a one-period game.

OK, ya got me there. If you’d have told me that after the first period the Caps: a) out-shot the Rangers 14-4, b) out-hit them 16-11, and c) won 11 of 15 draws, I’d have told you that the Caps: a) led after one period, b) had the Rangers on their heels, and c) had the crowd really into it.

The fact is, the game was scoreless after one period, the Rangers started to shift the momentum at the end of the period, and the crowd wasn’t quite as over the top as we might have expected.

That hits statistic is especially revealing. After tenderizing the Rangers relentlessly and remorselessly for 20 minutes, the Caps… stopped. And that was a metaphor for the whole evening as the Rangers ended up spotting the Caps a goal before winning Game 1, 4-3 last night.

After the Caps put up those 16 hits in the first 20 minutes, they registered only 11 for the last 40 minutes of the contest. And that was merely a reflection of the comparative listlessness that the Caps displayed in letting the Rangers off the hook.

Much will be made of the fact that Jose Theodore allowed four goals on 21 shots – certainly the fan reaction on the post-game radio show indicated that Theodore was, at best, the worst goaltender ever to have strapped on pads in the history of earth. But Theodore suffered from two things last night, neither of which were in his control. First, he is listed – generously, we think – at 5’11”. Why is that important? Because the Rangers did a good job of picking corners over his shoulders. The second Ranger goal by Nik Antropov and the game-winner from Brandon Dubinsky were scored in that fashion.

Second, despite the Rangers getting only 21 shots, the Caps did not play a very good game of team defense in front of Theodore. What unfolded was precisely the sort of thing that was described in many pre-game reviews of this series – the Caps spent such a portion of their effort on the attack that it leaves the goaltender having to face good scoring chances from the opponent frequently. Markus Naslund’s goal could fall into that category, as could Dubinsky’s, for that matter.

We won’t argue that Theodore played a good game – he didn’t, and he admitted as much in the post-game. But he didn’t get a lot of support in front of him at crucial moments, either.

Which brings us – speaking of that support in front of him – to Jeff Schultz. There probably isn’t a person in the Washngton metro area who feels worse about what happened on the Dubinsky game-winner than Schultz. Small consolation. He took a bad angle on Dubinsky, fell when Dubinsky cut back against the grain, and could only watch as Dubinsky skated in with Markus Naslund and only Mike Green back. Dubinsky picked the top corner, and that was that.

Then there was the fourth goal, which was actually the first of the night for the Rangers. If you only saw the end of the play, you might ask, “how is it that Scott Gomez got so open to skate in alone on Theodore?” Well, rewind the tape. What you’ll see is that Sean Avery set a moving pick on Mike Green at the Capitals’ blue line to spring Gomez free. What we don’t understand about the play, though, is what Shaone Morrisonn was doing at the end of it. He slid across the crease to try to deny Gomez a shot, but failed – or didn’t seem to attempt – to poke the puck off Gomez’ stick. He slid completely out of the play, allowing Gomez to cut across and stuff the puck behind Theodore.

Other stuff…

- 13 shots, 28 attempts, six hits, three takeaways, and a two assists (after originally being credited with a goal that ultimately went to Tomas Fleischmann). Alex Ovechkin had a very full evening.

- 46-20 on draws. You can’t do much better against air. Perhaps more than in any game this year, the Caps did a fine job of tying up the center on the draw and having a teammate come in and control the puck.

- Two power play goals for New York…two power play goals for Washington. If the Rangers equal the Caps scoring on the power play, this is not going to end well for the Caps. For it is there that the Rangers, well, suck, and the Caps can – and have to – make Henrik Lundqvist pay.

- Yes, we get it. Lundqvist is a better goalie than Jose Theodore. The object of the exercise for the Caps was, and will continue to be, not letting this get into a goaltender battle. They can’t give up chances in their end (they did), and they have to convert the chances they get at the other end, generally by getting second shots and traffic.

- Which brings us to what is too often the most frustrating thing about this team. They get so cute on the power play, it is as if they are trying to one-up one another to see who can make the prettiest pass, when what is called for is to pound the puck into the crease and go after it. That is how Alexander Semin scored his goal on the power play last night, and you could argue that it is how Tomas Flesichmann – setting up as a screen in front of Lundqvist as Ovechkin took a drive – scored his power play goal. If the Caps are going to spin the puck around the perimeter and go for that one last cross-ice pass that seems always to be deflected by an opponent’s stick, then it’s golf in May.

- For all the talk of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi drawing Ovechkin duty, it didn’t last long (Staal ended up being on the ice for all three Caps goals). The Rangers ended up sending Wade Redden and Michal Roszival out there. That didn’t really help much either. Ovechkin was the best player (at least the best one not wearing goalie pads) on the ice.

- It took 22 games, but Viktor Kozlov finally got his first career playoff goal off a positively brilliant pass from Nicklas Backstrom.

- Mike Green had two assists, but he was also on the ice for three Ranger goals and took a delay-of-game penalty. We’re thinking he got his bad game out of the way in this one.

- Here is an ominous statistic for you Caps fans hoping for a Cup this year. In the last ten seasons, the record of the Stanley Cup winner in Game 1 of the first round?... 8-2.

Stan Fischler is already rolling out the “S” word with respect to this series, and Larry Brooks is working the Lundqvist-over-Theodore angle this morning. Fine. What the Rangers did was pop the Caps in the nose. But it’s still first to four, not first to one.

Repeat after me…”it’s first to ‘four,’ not first to ‘one.’”