Monday, April 20, 2009

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 3: Caps 4 - Rangers 0

It’s still first to four.

But at least the Caps have one in the books toward that end after a 4-0 shutout of the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, or – if you’re a Sean Avery fan – Club Stoopid.

Sometimes, it takes a beat up Saturn to get you where you’re going, not a Lamborghini, and such was the case tonight as the Caps scored four goals from (according to the NHL official play-by-play) a total of 51 feet from the Rangers’ net. The currency the Caps were trading in was to head for the net, and it was just what was needed to make Henrik Lundqvist pay with a good, but not great performance on a night when he was the second best goalie on the ice.

The best goalie on the ice tonight would be Simeon Varlamov. It wasn’t so much the saves, many of which were of the “he did what?!” variety, but his preternatural calm in what was described before the game as “a jungle.” Even when the social director of Club Stoopid decided he’d “send a message” to Varlamov toward the end of the game, Varlamov just looked back with an expression that said, “I have no idea what you’re saying, fashion boy, not because I can’t speak English, but because all you’re doing is spitting out of your mouthpiece.” Varlamov managed to draw two penalties on Sean Avery, one of which the Caps scored on in the ensuing power play. He is the youngest goalie every to record a shutout in a playoff game at Madison Square Garden…he played a lot older.

If you win from the net out in the playoffs, then that’s just what the Caps did. It was a night for the “defensive” defensemen, led by John Erskine, who must have read Stan Fischler’s love note on the “Game On!” blog at this morning…

“Be it Tom Poti or Milan Jurcina, nobody on the Caps backline impresses as a DEFENSEMAN. John Erskine gives an effort but we're talking about a fellow who couldn't even last on the Islanders varsity.”

Looked pretty good out there tonight. Maybe you’ll regale us with another story from the 1940’s in tomorrow’s blog.

And speaking of Tom Poti and Milan Jurcina…Poti played 23 minutes of error-free hockey. His score sheet is lily white, but the important column is the plus-minus one…as in, no goals scored when on the ice. The goal he scored was pure gravy.

If Poti was effective in a quiet way, Jurcina was that in a more assertive way. Four hits, usually of the bug-on-a-windshield variety, and he seemed to take instruction well. He was making the effort to change the angle on his shot opportunities from the point, rather than just firing it into the leg pads of Ranger defenders.

And speaking of “defensive” defensemen, Mike Green…five hits. Led the team in that category. It wasn’t a vintage Green performance, but this isn’t the time of year when he’s likely to be featured on a lot of pinch-in goals. This was more of the game he needs to play. When the opportunities present themselves on offense, he’s still got the talent to take advantage of them.

In fact, it would be hard to find much fault with any of the defensemen tonight – as a group it might have been the best performance by a six-man group for the Caps this year.

Here might be the most bizarre number of the night – one. That was the number of giveaways the Caps were charged with committing. You can attribute that to the scoring quirks of Madison Square Garden (the Rangers had only four), but the Caps were much better with the puck than they were on Saturday, when the Caps were charged with 24 giveaways.

Back to the defense…it wasn’t as if the defensemen didn’t have help. Boyd Gordon had two blocked shots, a takeaway, and won nine of 13 draws. It says something that he had more shorthanded ice time (4:02) than any other forward. And only David Steckel took more defensive draws.

Nicklas Backstrom will be remembered for two eyes-in-the back-of-his head passes on his way to a three-assist night. But Backstrom had as many hits as Jurcina (four), and it was perhaps the play he made on his secondary assist on the second Semin goal that was his most important of the night. After Ryan Callahan banged a shot off the inside of the post behind Varlamov, the Caps broke out of the zone as Backstrom took a pass at the Capitals’ blue line. He skated down the middle until he gained the Ragner line, then curled into the left wing corner. Callahan circled into the play and was bearing down on Backstrom. Instead of planting a check on the Caps center, though, Callahan was thrown off by Backstrom, who then recovered the puck and fed Alex Ovechkin on the goal line. Ovechkin drew a Ranger aside with a fake that opened up a passing lane and fed Semin for the weakside shot that snuck in behind Lundqvist.

Speaking of Ovechkin, we’ll probably hear tomorrow about his being oh-for-24 on shots on goal. Whatever…tonight he made two superb plays on defense that helped preserve the shutout. One took place when Lauri Korpikoski and Brooks Laich were tangled up along the left wing boards. The puck slowed down enough for Korpikoski to circle out with it and nothing between him and Varlamov but clear ice. Ovechkin dove to try to poke the puck off Korpikoski’s stick and did just enough to upset the Ranger’s rhythm. Korpikoski recovered the puck and spun to his forehand, but Ovechkin was doing his best impression of a speed bump above which Korpikoski couldn’t lift the puck. Ovechkin managed to smother the puck in his legs to prevent a chance on Varlamov.

On the other, Ovechkin couldn’t corral a puck that come off the side boards, one that found a Ranger stick going the other way. Ovechkin raced back on the play and made a diving sweep check of the puck to deny another chance against Varlamov.

Another number of note…13. Much has been made of the Rangers’ capacity to block shots in this series – 50 in the first two games. But tonight, there were only 13 by the Rangers. Why? Of the 40 shots on goal recorded by the Caps, only 18 were from outside of 20 feet. The Caps made the Rangers defend and did not give them the luxury of flopping to the ice in front of shots from the concession stands.

It appears that the future is now. Simeon Varlamov is now the number one goalie. He certainly has the raw talent for the role – keep in mind the only game he’s lost in regulation in his brief NHL career was a playoff game in which he allowed but a single goal. He’s allowed more than two goals in a game only once in seven appearances. But it’s still an uphill climb, and if the Caps are going to crawl back on top, it will be on the sort of combined effort they displayed tonight.

But ominously for the Rangers is a question asked by the gas bag in New York

“Where's Ovechkin? Where's Mike Green? Four goals scored by the visitors and not one from Ovie's stick nor Green's for that matter. What happens if they ever hit the mark?”

Answer: You’ll be asking where a two-game lead went.

And then there is this from Lundqvist on his opposite number…

"He played well. But on Wednesday we've got to put more pressure on him."

You might recall Lundqvist pretty much said the same thing after the Saturday game. Fun time is over. Rock tours are over. Now, it’s pick up your lunch pail, put on your hard hat, and get to work.

Nuggets...Part II

Going back to 1996, 12 teams won games 1 and 2 in the first round by one-goal margins. Their record in the series?


If you're going to make history, make history.


Two of the last six Stanley Cup champions faced an 0-2 deficit in a playoff series before going on to win the Cup.

Both times the deficit came in the first round.

In 2002, Detroit lost games 1 and 2 to Vancouver by scores of 4-3 (in OT) and 5-2, before storming back to win in six games.

In 2006, Carolina fell behind in games 1 and 2 to Montreal by scores of 6-1 and 6-5 (in OT), before roaring back to win in, yes, six games.

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 3 -- Caps vs. Rangers

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, here we are, in a place we didn’t think we’d be…down 0-2 to the – ugh – Rangers. It’s a difficult situation, to be sure, but not one that hasn’t been overcome before in the annals of NHL playoff hockey. However, the Caps face an inspired enemy in the New York Rangers, and it makes one wonder what has to be done to turn the tide against such an enemy.

Well, we sat down with three legendary heroes – William Wallace, Scottish freedom fighter; Maximus Decimus Meridius, Roman General…

“…Commander of the Armies of the North, General of the Felix Legions, loyal servant to the true emperor, Marcus Aurelius.”

Yeah, yeah, we saw the movie…

“Father to a murdered son, husband to a murdered wife. And I will have my vengeance, in this life or the next.”

OK!...And King Leonidas of Sparta, who led a small force against an invasion of the Persian army at the Battle of Thermopylae. Gentlemen, welcome. First up, the Caps are down 0-2. It’s quite a hole to dig out of. What do you tell the boys to keep their spirits up? General Maximus?

“I’d march into the barracks…"

Locker room…

“Locker room… and say, ‘Three weeks from now, I will be scoring hat tricks in the conference semi finals. Imagine where you will be, and it will be so. Hold the line! Stay with me! If you find yourself alone, standing in the green fields with the sun on your face, do not be troubled. For you are in Elysium, and you're already playing golf!’”

Mr. Wallace…say, are you really William Wallace? William Wallace is seven feet tall.

“Yes, I've heard. Kills men by the hundreds. And if HE were here, he'd consume the Rangers with fireballs from his eyes, and bolts of lightning from his arse… I am William Wallace! And I see a whole team of Capitals, here in defiance of tyranny. They’ve come to fight as free men... and free men they are. What will they do with that freedom? Will they fight?”

Fight? Against the Rangers? No…if they’re like previous Caps teams in this predicament, they’ll go through the motions. And they will hit the links.

“Aye, fight and they may skate some more. Go through the motions, and they can hit the links – golf was invented in Scotland, you know. And dying in their beds, many years from now, would they be willin' to trade ALL the days, from this day to that, for one chance, just one chance, to come back here and tell their enemies that they may take our lives, but they'll never take... OUR STANLEY CUP!”

It’s a powerful message…King Leonidas, what would you tell your charges?

“I would say, ‘children, gather round! No retreat, no surrender; that is Capitals lore. And by Capitals lore we will stand and fight... and die. Well, not die, this being only hockey…A new age has begun. An age of Caps playoff success, and all will know, that 20 Capitals players gave their last breath to defend it!’”

General, tonight when the Caps take the ice at Madison Square Garden, it will be a hostile crowd that the Rangers no doubt will feed off of…how do you keep your team focused against those odds?

“I’d tell them, ‘whatever comes out of these gates, we've got a better chance of survival if we work… together. Do you understand? If we stay together we survive.’”

King Leonidas, the difference in this series so far seems to be the play of Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist. He has really been on top of his game. How do you fight the idea that “The King” is inpenetrable?

“I leave them with the idea that when midnight comes, the world will know that the Capitals stood against a Vezina Trophy finalist, that few stood against many, and before this battle was over, even a goalie-king can bleed.”

It’s morning, and the Caps are getting ready to gird their loins, so to speak, to join the battle. What are they hearing from their brain trust? King?

“Capitals! Ready your breakfast and eat hearty... For tonight, we dine in hell!”

That would seem to be an apt description of Madison Square Garden. Rangers coach John Tortorella seems cautiously confident as the teams head into game three. If you’re taking the opening draw, do you whisper something to the Ranger facing off with you? William?

“Wayll… I’d lean in and whisper…”Before we let you leave, your coach must cross that ice, present himself before this team, put his head between his legs, and kiss his own arse.”

King Leonidas, what do you tell them as they’re walking out that tunnel to take the ice?

“Give them nothing! But take from them everything!”

William, when all is said and done, and this series is finally over, what will be said of the Caps?

“In the Year of our Lord 2009, patriots of Washington – down two games and outnumbered - charged the ice of Manhattan. They fought like warrior poets; they fought like Capitals, and won their playoff series.”

Maybe the results so far have creeped into the state of mind of the Rangers and given them a confidence to end this thing by Wednesday night. A couple of quotes from Rangers suggest as much…

"We're going to enjoy this for a little bit and then get ready to go, but I'm really looking forward to playing at home.”

-- Henrik Lundqvist

"I'm sure the Garden's gonna be rockin'. It's gonna be fun."

-- Chris Drury

Fun? At the Capitals’ expense? Not tonight. King Leonidas, you have any last thoughts?

“Unless I miss my guess, we're in for one wild night.”

Caps 4 – Rangers 3