Sunday, June 20, 2010

The 2009-2010 season, by the "tens" -- Ten Games That Mattered: Montreal at Washington, April 28th

We are at the end of it, the last of the ten games that mattered in 2009-2010. Unfortunately, they do not end on a happy note, but rather a stunning one…

April 28: Montreal at Washington, Game 7, Eastern Conference Quarterfinals

The Result: Canadiens 2 – Capitals 1

The Background: A team plays 82-games to earn home ice advantage, but the advantage is perhaps weakest in the Stanley Cup playoffs than it is for any playoff game or series in any other major sport. Home ice in a seven-game series has been especially inhospitable for the Caps, who entered this game 2-5 in Games 7 on home ice in franchise history. This game seven would mark the fourth Game 7 the Caps would play in four playoff series over the past three years, all of those games on home ice. They lost the first, an overtime decision to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008. They then won a Game 7 against the Rangers in the first round of the 2009 playoffs before dropping a Game 7 to the Pittsburgh Penguins at Verizon Center in the second round. What made this Game 7 one accompanied by a sense of foreboding was the fact that the Caps found themselves in this predicament after having taken a 3-1 lead in games. Eight times in club history the Caps found themselves heading into a Game 5 with a 3-1 lead, and three times they lost the series. Well, perhaps the loss-win-loss pattern would be extended in this game with a win…

Why It Mattered: By this time things were rather simple. As Jaroslav Halak went, so went the Canadiens. In three wins, Halak stopped 135 of 139 shots (.970 save percentage), and was named the first star of the game twice and second star once. In two losses (he sat in favor of Carey Price in Game 4) he stopped 41 of 50 shots (.820) and was pulled once. And, as a somewhat related matter, it helped if the Caps could get the first goal. Montreal managed to get the first goal in four of the first six games and won three of them, losing both games in which they allowed the first goal.

Given that backdrop it was a bad sign that the Caps peppered Halak with four shots in the first 2:45 of Game 7, none of them finding the back of the net. Halak’s weathering that mini-storm allowed the Canadiens’ defense to get their legs under them, holding the Caps without a shot on goal for the next 13:15. There was one shot, though, not recorded as such during this stretch that might have been lost in the maze of activity of the first period, a shot that too closely resembled a chance the Caps had in last year’s Game 7 loss to the Penguins. Twelve minutes into the period Brendan Morrison led a 3-on-2 break with Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin. Upon gaining the Montreal zone, Morrison fed Laich on the left wing. Laich skated in, pulling Halak to the near post and opening up a passing lane and a shot opportunity on the other side. Laich saw both and from the left wing faceoff dot slid the puck to Alexander Semin charging to the net. Semin redirected the puck to the open side of the cage, but instead of finding the back of the net and giving the Caps the important first goal, he hit the goalpost with the shot. It looked too much like the breakaway Alex Ovechkin had in last year’s Game 7 against the Penguins at the three-minute mark of the first period that Marc-Andre Fluery foiled as a prelude to a 6-2 loss.

It was Montreal that would draw first blood on a power play late in the period. Skating with a 4-on-3 advtantage, Scott Gomez controlled the puck low in the left wing faceoff circle looking for a passing lane. He found one, skipping the puck between Boyd Gordon and Brooks Laich to Marc-Andre Bergeron, who one timed a laser past goalie Semyon Varlamov 30 seconds before the end of the first period.

Montreal seemed content to put the game thereafter in the hands of Halak, and why would they not? First goals had been very good to the Canadiens to this point, and the Caps were showing more than a bit of frustration at being unable to find holes in the Canadiens’ defense or Halak’s netminding. The second period passed without a goal scored for either team, but it was clear Montreal was not taking any chances on offense that the Caps could use against them in a transition game. The Canadiens managed only three shots on goal (two of them good scoring opportunities) while the Caps recorded 13 shots on goal.

The game and the series, though, might have come down to a sequence in the first minute of the third period. The play started when Alex Ovechkin carried the puck into the Montreal end, cut to the middle, and got off a shot that was saved by Halak. The puck came back out to Nicklas Backstrom at the left wing boards, Ovechkin continuing his momentum around the back of the Montreal net. Backstrom fed Ovechkin, who had some skating room along the boards. As Ovechkin was circling into a shooting area, Mike Knuble maneuvered himself between defenseman Hal Gill and Halak at the edge of the crease. Ovechkin fired, and the puck found the back of the net through Knuble’s screen. But referee Brad Watson wasted no time waving off the goal, the reason being that Knuble’s right skate was in the blue paint and struck Halak’s pad as he was going down to attempt a save.

Getting that goal would have been an important factor in the way the rest of the period played out in that Montreal would have had to take more chances to get a tie-breaking goal. Instead, they could remain in their “rope-a-dope” mode, taking few chances and letting their defense frustrate the Caps by clogging the middle of the ice. It paid off for the Canadiens in the period’s 17th minute when Hal Gill chipped the puck from his own end off the glass and over the head of defenseman John Carlson. Maxim Lapierre and Mike Green were in a race for the puck, and it appeared as if Green could not decide whether to take the body or poke the puck away. He managed neither, and Dominic Moore collected the puck in the right wing faceoff circle. He curled in on Varlamov, and before Knuble could get back to get in Moore’s path, the Canadien chipped the puck far side and past Varlamov to give the Canadiens a two-goal lead with only 3:36 left to play.

The Caps did get one back on some hard work by Brooks Laich after Backstrom skated into the offensive zone with the puck. Backstrom fed Laich for a shot from the top of the left wing circle. Rather than admire his handiwork being stopped by Halak, though, Laich continued to the net. The rebound of the shot came out to Alex Ovechkin, who sent it right back on a backhand. Halak made the save but was not in position to smother the puck, leaving it lying there for Laich to dive at and lift into the net to get the Caps within one with 2:16 to play.

It got even more interesting shortly thereafter, as Ryan O’Byrne was sent off with 1:44 to play for high-sticking Mike Knuble, giving the Caps one last power play. And there was the cruelty of the series. A power play that led the league in efficiency during the season was 1-for-32 to that point. And now, the season lay in the balance on that same power play. Those last 104 seconds were a microcosm of the series. The Caps managed two inconsequential shots, both saved by Halak, while the Canadiens blocked two others – the Canadiens blocked 41 shots in this game and 182 in the series. The horn sounded in an empty arena, save for the cheers on the Montreal bench and among the Canadiens on the ice congratulating one another on a 2-1 Game 7 win.

The Takeaway: There is the old saying that “success has a thousand fathers, but failure is an orphan.” Well, not this time. First of all, failure is what it was. Despite the fact that the Canadiens might have been the worst possible first round draw for the Caps, these things are relative. Washington finished 33 standings points ahead of Montreal and finished first in the league in 5-on-5 goals while the Canadiens finished dead last.

That plus-81 differential in goals scored at full and even strength – almost exactly a full goal per game – should have mitigated the problems the Capitals had with their power play. But oh, what a woeful power play it was – 1-for-33 in the seven games. The Caps finished the season with a 25.2 percent success rate on their power play. If the Caps finished this series at, say, 20 or so percent (six goals), we are likely writing a very different piece this morning. And if they finished at their season level of efficiency, which would have resulted in eight goals, well… we are definitely writing about another game.

But there was so much more about this series that was disappointing. There was the matter of paying a price to make a play, especially on defense. Sure, the Caps had shots – 292 shots on goal for the series (41.7 a game), but a lot of that was a product of shots taken from far and wide, not near and close. Montreal blocked 182 shots in the series (26.0), an amazing number when you realize that they recorded only 192 shots on goal of their own.

There was the bewildering impotence of Alexander Semin. A 40-goal scorer in the regular season, Semin was held without a goal on 44 shots. That only tells the half of it… well, not quite half. Semin attempted 95 shots in the seven games. Blind luck – a bounce, a deflection off a stick, sunspots – should have resulted in one goal somewhere in there.

Mike Green came up empty again. After recording no goals in last year’s second round loss to the Penguins – a result that might be explained away by injury – he recorded none this time around on 23 shots of his own. What’s more, he led the Caps in penalty minutes – six minors for holding (twice), tripping, delay-of-game, elbowing, and cross checking. That last cross checking penalty led directly to the first Montreal goal of Game 7. It was a silly penalty to take, committed in the offensive zone against Andrei Markov 15 feet from a referee.

The Captain had five goals and five assists for the series, but Alex Ovechkin was 1-1-2, minus-2 in the final three games of the series, all Caps losses. And, he seemed to cross a fine line between firing up his teammates and showing too much frustration with the scrums he found himself involved in after whistles late in the series.

Semyon Varlamov – the hero of the first round series last season – could not duplicate his heroics this time around in relief of Jose Theodore. In fact, in his last 13 playoff games (last year’s second round series and this year’s first round series), he is 6-7, 3.12, .902. This is not the line of a goaltender likely to realize success in the playoffs.

The top two lines of Ovechkin, Backstrom, Knuble, Laich, Semin, and Eric Belanger accounted for 14 of the 22 goals the Caps scored in the series. Twelve of those were accounted for by the top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Knuble. The second line of Semin, Laich, and Belanger was outscored (two goals) by Eric Fehr (three goals). The trouble with that statistic, as much as the raw comparison, is that Fehr scored his three goals in an average of 11 minutes of ice time a game. Laich and Semin averaged more than 19 minutes of ice time.

The bottom half of the forward lines managed six goals, half of those by Fehr. Conspicuously absent from the goal-scoring record was 23-goal scorer (in the regular season) Tomas Fleischmann, who now has one playoff goal in his last 12 playoff games since potting the game-winner in Game 1 of last year’s second round series against Pittsburgh. He was, in fact, benched for Game 7 in favor of Scott Walker in an attempt to get a larger measure of grit into the lineup.

Walker played only 6:47 in that Game 7, none in the last 15:11 of the contest. It was a disappointing end to his season after being obtained from the Carolina Hurricanes at the trading deadline. And if the object of the exercise at the trading deadline was to tweak the Caps’ lineup for the playoff phase of the season and provided added depth, it did not work out as planned. In the playoffs, Eric Belanger, Scott Walker, and Joe Corvo combined for one goal and two assists while going minus-2 in 15 combined man-games. Milan Jurcina – also picked up at the deadline – did not play, a result of sports hernia surgery he had that would have delayed his appearance in the playoffs to a later round that the Caps did not get to play.

Then there was the matter of what was going on behind the bench. A playoff series is a continuing dance of adjustment and readjustment. Perhaps no adjustment Montreal made paid greater dividends than taking Marc-Andre Bergeron – a liability as a defenseman, but a dangerous power play weapon – and moving him to seventh defenseman/fourth line forward. In the first four games of the series, during which the Caps built that 3-1 lead in games, Bergeron was 0-1-1 and was a ghastly minus-8. He was on the ice for eight of the 19 goals the Caps scored in those games. Giving him an average of more than 22 minutes a night was not working. He was pared back to less than seven minutes, limiting the liability he displayed on the defensive end, but keeping him in the lineup to deploy on power plays. It was his power play goal in Game 7 that got the Canadiens the first goal and allowed them to dictate pace and style for much of the rest of the contest.

The Caps had no answer behind their bench to Montreal’s adjustments in Games 5-7. One could say it was a hot goaltender – and Jaroslav Halak did stop 131 of 134 shots in those games (.978 save percentage) – but the Caps never really made things difficult for the Canadiens’ netminder, either, despite the large shot volumes. Too often, the Caps were taking shots from the perimeter and not getting them to the net where Mike Knuble or Brooks Laich might do some damage on rebounds. Too many shots were being blocked (83 in the last three games), frustrating the Capitals certainly, but not leading to much in the way of productive adjustments to find better shooting lanes and angles.

In an odd way, this series ended up resembling another recent series played by these two organizations -- the 2007 Calder Cup finals played by Washington's Hershey Bears and Montreal's Hamilton Bulldogs.  That, too, was a series played with a high-powered offense on one side (Hershey, which finished second in goals scored during that regular season) and a hot goalie on the other (Carey Price, a late season addition to the Bulldogs).  Hershey was surprised by the Bulldogs in a first game loss (a 4-0 shutout at the hands of Price) before righting themselves in Game 2.  But the Bears could not find a way to solve Price thereafter, the goalie allowing only five goals on 105 shots in the final three games of the series, all Hamilton wins.  Coincidentally, the Bulldogs clinched the series with a 2-1 win.  Many of the Bears who skated in that game skated for the Caps in the Montreal series -- Jeff Schultz, Tomas Fleischmann, David Steckel, and Mike Green.  But there was also a common factor behind the benches in Hershey and Washington -- Coach Bruce Boudreau.  In 2007 and 2010, the Bears/Caps could not/did not find a way or make the adjustments needed to find success.  Coaching cannot be absolved of those results.

What became evident as the playoffs moved on past the first round was that the Caps simply weren’t willing to pay a high enough price to make plays. They played a “regular season” style of game, perhaps thinking that the sheer difference in skill between their skaters and Montreal’s would carry the day. It did not. It is a lesson one would think the Caps would have learned by this time, having now lost three Game 7’s in their past four playoff rounds.

It speaks directly to a comment made by R.J. Umberger, ridiculed when he made it after his Columbus Blue Jackets lost to the Caps in early April, but wise now…

"I don't think any team in the West would be overmatched by them. They play the wrong way. They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs). If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they're going to get frustrated because they're in their zone a lot."

Montreal did not keep the Caps off their power play – the Caps averaged almost a full power play opportunity more per game (4.71) than they did in the regular season (3.82). But Montreal succeeded in taking the power play away from the Caps as a weapon. The Canadiens committed only 82 turnovers (their giveaways plus Washington takeaways) to 108 for the Caps. And, the Canadiens won the turnover battle in each of the four games they won.

In the end, it was (as we pointed out at the time) a failure for the Caps – in the game, in the series and for the season. A team coming off three consecutive division championships, two consecutive 100-point seasons, and a President’s Cup in this past regular season cannot look at a first-round playoff loss as being anything but failure. As the playoff message said, “nothing else matters.” It was not speaking of regular season results, but of winning a Stanley Cup. And that is why Game 7 – another disappointment – matters and matters so much.


Viking said...

i enjoy your blogs. how do you remember all those details? why do you not seem to get a bunch of comments from your blogs?
i think your analysis is right on target.

Diane said...

I wonder about that also. Why no comments.

I consider your blog a "must read" for any Caps fan.

The Peerless said...

We're off in one of the far corners of the Internet, I guess. Sort of like I-66 when everyone is on the interstates.

Viking said...

maybe everyone just agrees with your analysis and therefore you are not a controversial subject. just say something stupid - one time- and who knows, maybe all of the scribes will jump all over you. can you tell how many readers you have with some kind of counter? or are they called hits?
i subscibe to your blog in my e-mail so i dont miss a single one.
thanks again

The Peerless said...

I know how many unique and total visits I get every day. It's about what PuckDaddy gets in about 12 minutes, I suspect.

Anonymous said...

No argument from me on listing the seventh game of the Montreal series as #1; however, as much as I enjoyed the second game, the fifth game was the one that mattered second most. The Caps could have closed out Montreal, but instead laid an egg that set the stage for their comeback. It also demonstrated (yet again) lackaidasical effort, an inability to keep the other team off the scoreboard early, and general lack of a killer instinct. As soon as the Caps blew that game, I felt the time-honored dread that accompanies every long-standing Caps fan: we are going to blow another opportunity. I just want this feeling to go away...


The Peerless said...

I almost included the Game 5 instead of the Game 7, precisely because of the pivotal nature such games seem to play in the Caps playoff history narrative. But they did have the chance to get the monkey off their backs of having lost two of three Games 7 in the previous two postseasons, and they failed. It was the exclamation point on a disaster of a playoff.