Saturday, April 25, 2009

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 5: Caps 4 - Rangers 0




With 29 seconds left in the second period, New York Ranger coach John Tortorella walked to the end of the Ranger bench, leaned over backup goaltender Steve Valiquette and said something to the effect of, “you’re in after the break.”

What prompted this?

Well, if it wasn’t Alex Ovechkin’s top highlight goal of the season, it certainly was in the top three. Ovechkin’s second goal of the series capped the Capitals’ scoring in a 4-0 win over the Rangers to send the series back to New York with the Rangers still – if precariously – holding a 3-2 lead in games. As for the goal, we won’t even describe it. Just watch, and keep hitting “replay”…

Perhaps the sweetest irony in this goal was that Derek Morris – the defenseman who was supposed to bolster the Ranger blue line (and who was the object of affection for many Caps fans at the trading deadline) ended up being embarrassed not once, but twice on this play. First, by giving up the blue line so passively to Ovechkin as he cut across the middle, and then being the stuff of those still pictures you always see of great players making great plays at the expense of some schmoe – Morris filling the role of “schmoe” here by letting Ovechkin thread the puck through his legs as he took his final turn to the Ranger net.

But if Ovechkin’s goal was the cherry on top of the sundae, the Caps and their fans got two scoops of delight from just about the most unexpected source, and in the most unexpected ways.

Matt Bradley is not on anyone’s short list for “guys who will score big goals in big games.” No offense to Bradley, who’s energy we love to see displayed on the ice. But in 21 playoff games before last night, Bradley scored exactly no goals on 15 shots. Then, with the Rangers on a power play…

Boyd Gordon beat Wade Redden to a puck on the right wing boards. Gordon pried the puck off the boards and onto the stick of Mike Green in the faceoff circle, Green feeding it right back to Gordon. Skating down the half-wall, Gordon sent the puck hard around behind the Caps’ net. Michal Roszival could not get to the far wall quickly enough to keep the puck in the zone, and he appeared to get his skate blade caught where the ice meets the board, sending him tumbling to the ice as the puck slid free of the zone. Bradley sped by in pursuit of the puck, with Chris Drury trying to cut off the angle from the middle of the ice. Drury tried to pull the puck back while curling away from Bradley, but Bradley managed to poke the puck off Drury’s stick toward the Ranger end. In making his move, Drury was now out of position to keep Bradley from skating unimpeded into the Ranger zone, with the only thing between him and goalie Henrik Lundqvist being the puck.

It was here that Lundqvist had to make one of those split-second decisions goalies generally aren’t equipped to make in a split-second fashion. Do I skate out to try to cover the puck sliding toward me, or do I stay back and defend the shot? Lundqvist was caught in a no-man’s land, taking a step out toward the puck before deciding to stay back. Bradley collected the puck, settled it on his forehand, slid it to his backhand and roofed it over Lundqvist’s right pad for the shorthanded goal and the early lead.

Bradley wasn’t done. It all started when Brooks Laich couldn’t poke a pass away from Aaron Voros skating down the right side in the neutral zone. Voros, having escaped Laich, skated into the Capitals zone with Nik Antropov on a 2-on-1. Voros fired the puck short-side, and it looked as if Caps goalie Simeon Varlamov got enough of it with his left pad to send the puck behind the net. Paul Mara kept it in for the Rangers, sending the puck back around the net, but onto the stick of Sergei Fedorov for the Caps. Fedorov sent it forward to Tom Poti, who relayed it ahead to Laich in the neutral zone. Laich flipped the puck softly toward the right wing corner on what looked like a harmless dump-in.

But there was Bradley again, corralling the puck at the far edge of the right-wing faceoff circle. His momentum took him toward the Ranger goal line, and Bradley had little recourse but to throw the puck at the net in search of a rebound. But in throwing the puck at the net, Bradley’s shot found space between Lundqvist’s pads – it popped free behind the goalie and settled softly into the far side of the net.

Add in Alexander Semin’s rocket of a wrister off of a clean face off win by faceoff warrior (well, now at least) Nicklas Backstrom, and the Caps’ arsenal was on full display in front of a wild crowd at Verizon Center.

Other stuff…

- We get the impression that when John Tortorella’s fuse is lit, he would be a real hoot to watch go off. Fans almost got the full “Tortorella,” as a fan decided seven bucks was a fair price for something to toss at the Ranger coach – a beer. By the time the resulting dust had settled, Tortorella was brandishing a stick at the fans behind the Ranger bench, interim assistant coach Jim Schoenfeld had his arms around Tortorella to hold him back from swinging that stick, security was in the stands, referees were at the bench, players were standing a jawing with the fans, and it looked like some perverse episode of “Cops: The NHL File.”

- We get that Chris Drury is playing one handed. That he’s out there at all is testimony to his grit, trying to play through what looks like a wrist injury. But it’s also testimony to just how starved the Rangers are for any offense that he’s out there. He attempted only one shot (blocked), split eight draws, was the victim on Bradley’s first goal, and finished the night minus-3. Is he a liability out there?

- What we don’t get is Scott Gomez. Even if the Rangers advance, it won’t be because of anything Gomez has done in this series. He was awful last night, right from the point – 76 seconds into the game – where he took a retaliatory slash on Alex Ovechkin until he had his last shot attempt blocked by Brian Pothier in the game’s last minute of play. He has no points since game one, and he’s generally played with a chip on his shoulder, more inclined to stick work against players than on the puck.

- Why was that first Bradley goal so unexpected? Well, putting aside that it was Bradley at all who scored it, he was 18th on the team in average shorthanded ice time in the regular season. It was almost as much a shock that he was killing that early penalty as much as the goal that came during the penalty kill.

- Derek Morris is being paid $3.9 million and change this year. He’s not earning it in this series. Being undressed twice on the same play by Alex Ovechkin aside, he hasn’t resembled anything close to the sort of shut-down defenseman such a salary and his having been acquired to be would indicate. Early in the series, a fair amount was written about how Marc Staal and Dan Girardi would get the lion’s share of the time against Ovechkin. Then, it was Redden and Roszival. Meanwhile, Morris has been on the ice for six of the 12 goals the Caps have scored in this series.

- Need support scoring? OK…Ovechkin and Semin got goals; Mike Green and Backstrom got assists. The Caps have to have that. But the Caps also got two goals and four assists from players not featured on a group poster. Matt Bradley (two goals), Tom Poti (an assist), Boyd Gordon (an assist), Brooks Laich (an assist), and Sergei Fedorov (an assist) chipped in nicely.

- It was a measure of how badly the Rangers played that they could score nothing despite the rather cavalier way the Caps handled the puck. 22 giveaways (the Rangers had but seven) against a team with a stronger offensive pulse could have ended this game a lot differently for the Caps.

- He didn’t register on the score sheet, but we did like Eric Fehr’s compete level last night. And this is the conundrum in terms of his ice time. He can play the role that, let’s just say, a Tomas Fleischmann can’t – he can be an energy guy along the boards and on the forecheck that Fleischmann can’t be. Fleischmann might get some PK time (1:07 last night), but is essentially a guy who can get, and only get, top six forward kind of ice time. Fehr can assume, to use today’s term of preference, “greasy” roles. It might help him down the road, giving him an education in the knocks and pings a power forward has to endure, but for now it appears to relegate him more to fourth line ice time.

- Did the Caps want this? They had 21 blocked shots to 11 for the Rangers, 12 takeaways to five for the Blueshirts.

- Does Simeon Varlamov know these are the playoffs? We’re not so taken up in the romance of “20 year old goalie with 15 seconds of experience shuts down NHL team in playoffs” angle to realize that some of those rebounds he’s leaving would be red meat to a guy like, say, Evgeni Malkin. But on the other hand, those are technical issues that can be corrected. You don’t teach the sort of innate aggressiveness he possesses to challenge shooters, the uncommon quickness he has, or the confidence that belies his age. Some goalies are meek in style and temperament. Others have presence. Varlamov has the latter.

- For all the ink expended on the absence of Sean Avery and what that did to the Rangers last night, we thought Aaron Voros did more than a passable impersonation in Avery’s stead – 12 minutes in penalties, minus-2, no points (Avery doesn't have any, either). was “Averyesque.”

The Caps live to skate another day. It is Groundhog Day, or rather “Groundhog Year.” Last year, they were on the brink, won a hard-fought game five, went to Philadelphia and vanquished the hosts in game six amid a sea of orange in one of the most difficult buildings for a visitor to win a game in the NHL.

Last night, the Caps were on the brink, won a hard-fought game five, and will now head to Madison Square Garden – another of the league’s most difficult venues for visitors – and battle a team supported by the blue-clad insane who descend upon Manhattan for the afternoon.

Been there, done that.

Well, do it again.