Saturday, April 30, 2011

Eastern Conference Semifinals, Game 1: Lightning 4 - Capitals 2

Seen a lot of those games over the years, Caps fans.

A lot of ‘em…too many, in fact.

Team comes out hesitant, finds their legs, but can’t stuff a loose puck in to save their lives. Dominates play for long stretches, but an own-goal and a power play goal at the end of a period later, find themselves behind. Then things get away from them as they try to catch up. Too much freelancing, too much individual play, too much forcing things. And their own power play stinks.

Yup…seen that kind of game too many times with the Caps on the short end of things.

And that’s how it unfolded last night as the Caps dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference seminfinal to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 4-2, last night at Verizon Center. The Caps came out tentative, trying to find holes in the Lightning 1-3-1 defense, and their tentative play cost them an early goal, Sean Bergenheim getting on the board in the third minute. Alexander Semin got it back when Marco Sturm tipped an attempted exit pass out of the Lightning zone by Brett Clark. Semin scooped up the loose puck and wristed to toward the Tampa cage. Goalie Dwayne Roloson could not get the wickets closed in time, and the puck snuck through his pads to tie the game.

It stayed that way until the second minute of the second period. Off a faceoff in the Tampa end, Jason Chimera won a short dash to the end boards for a loose puck and centered it to Eric Fehr, who wasted no time wristing it over Roloson’s glove to give the Caps their only lead of the night.

The lead, and the game, fell apart in the last four minutes of the second period. Tampa tied the game on an own goal by the Caps. Michal Neuvirth played the puck along the boards, but no Cap could corral it. That left it for Teddy Purcell to gather it along the right wing boards, whereupon he fed it to Vincent Lecavalier in the middle. Lecavalier poked it to Steve Downie, and Downie, trying to lay it off for a teammate, backhanded the puck off Scott Hannan’s stick and past Neuvith.

Three minutes later, with Chimera in the box for a roughing call, Eric Brewer circled down from the left wing and threw the puck at the net. Neuvirth made the first save, but left a loose puck at the near post. Steven Stamkos banged in the puck with barely a half-minute left in the period.

That goal seemed to take the discipline out of the Caps, who spent the third period more or less playing into the Tampa Bay defense and failing to convert power plays. The Lightning got an empty netter from Dominic Moore with 40 seconds left, and that was that…the kind of game that made Caps fans the way they are.

Other stuff…

-- A disallowed goal, an own goal, terrible luck on those chances that were pinballing around the crease, and the Caps still lost by a goal (empty netter notwithstanding). If the glass is half full, you say that the Caps played badly and still almost pulled out a win. In the glass half empty perspective, the Caps blew an opportunity to shove the Lightning in a hole early with poor play that will come back to haunt them as the series goes on.

-- Something certainly seems wrong with Nicklas Backstrom. Offensively there is just nothing to his game right now. Whether it is just a long run of bad luck or an injury, he just doesn’t look anything close to right out there.

-- With all those pucks pinballing around the Lightning crease last night, you can see that the Caps miss Mike Knuble desperately. His game is tailor-made for the sort of “throw pucks at Roloson’s feet” strategy. Anything springs loose, he’d have a chance.

-- Caps had 23 shots blocked in the game… 14 of them came in the third period.

-- Wouldn’t attach too much importance to a loss here. The Caps are 3-3 all time in series when they lose Game 1 at home.

-- Five power plays…the Caps have to convert when they get that many chances.

-- But it’s hard to do when you get only five shots on those five power plays in 8:45 of power play time, and none of those shots coming from Alex Ovechkin. If the Lightning are going to cheat to cover Ovechkin, other Caps have to make them pay.

-- John Carlson skated 36 seconds (two shifts) in the last 25:23. He is “day-to-day.” His absence, along with those of Tom Poti and Dennis Wideman, would put the Caps in a considerable hole, obviously.

-- 48 shot attempts for Tampa isn’t bad defense by the Caps; the goals were a bit fluky. On the other hand, 61 attempts isn’t bad, but getting 23 of them blocked is a problem.

-- Can’t even say that Neuvirth was “outplayed” by Roloson. One has to respect that Roloson doesn’t give up on a play, but he left a lot of loose pucks lying around and wasn’t doing a very good job of finding them. The Caps have to do a much better job of finishing. Brooks Laich (one shot on goal, three attempts) is important here with Knuble out.

In the end, it’s hard to get worked up over this loss with this team. In years past, this is the kind of loss that could set the tone for a series against a playoff opponent. Missed chances, fluky goals, usually Penguin uniforms. This Caps team is a different team. The Caps did not play especially well last night, but then again, neither did Tampa Bay. And before Tampa fans get all fat and happy about taking home ice away, it’s first to “four,” not first to “one.”

But it would be nice to stop the marches to the locker room because of injuries, not to mention lighting the lamp on a power play.

Friday, April 29, 2011

"Rolo"dex Day Planner


(click for larger image)

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Your Round Two Prognostos

We have the Caps-Lightning prognosto up, but what about the other three conference semifinal series? Well, let’s take a look…

Eastern Conference Semifinal: Philadelphia (2) vs. Boston (3)

Theme: Familiarity breeds contempt

Why Philly will win: Depth. Oh, sure, Danny Briere had those six goals in the first round, but James van Riemsdyk had something of a coming out party with four goals (including a power play goal and a game-winner), and Ville Leino had three of his own. For heaven’s sake, Daniel Carcillo had a pair. That kind of depth grinds a team down, even with a top-notch goalie. They did it to Ryan Miller; they can do it to Tim Thomas.

Why Philly Won’t Win: The Flyers got off lucky in the first round, using three goaltenders against a team without a lot of firepower and that doesn’t make a lot of noise in front of netminders. Boston might not be explosive, but they can do a better job than did Buffalo in crowding the crease. Brian Boucher, who for the moment appears to be “the man,” is going to have to work harder for his saves. And there, the Flyers’ biggest weakness can be exposed.

Flyer on the Hot Seat: Chris Pronger. He played in only two games of the opening round, coming back from a broken hand. Pronger is going to be key in policing the area in front of Boucher to be able to give the goalie a good look at shots. If Pronger does his job, it hides a lot of problems in goal.

Why Boston will win: Tim Thomas. He is the best player in this series. It could come down to how many bad games each goalie has, and Thomas is almost a betting lock to have fewer of them than Brian Boucher (or whoever ends up tending goal for the Flyers). In any player-to-player matchup in this series, the Bruins have an overwhelming advantage in goal.

Why Boston won’t win: That vague whiff of decay you smell? OK, that wall of stink hitting you in the face? It’s not week old clam chowder, but the Bruin power play. It was 0-for-21 against the Canadiens in round one, but truth be told, that’s not all that much an aberration. It wasn’t that hot in the regular season, either (16.2 percent; 21st in the league).

Bruin on the hot seat: David Krejci. One point in the opening round. Oh, that won’t do, not against the Flyers. Krejci had rather productive playoff appearances in the three post-seasons he had coming into this one (27 games, 7-14-21, plus-10). The Bruins will need that production in this round.

In the end, Boston’s power play isn’t as bad as it was in the opening round (mainly because Philly’s penalty kill is rather ordinary), and the Flyers still do not have an answer in goal.

Boston in six.


Western Conference Semifinal: Vancouver (1) vs. Nashville (5)

Theme: If the Sedins are keen, the Preds are dead.

Why Vancouver will win: We can talk about how Vancouver is simply better on both sides of the puck (and they are, with the possible exception of goaltending), but it might be the intangible here. Every team has their dark night of the soul moment in the playoffs, and for Vancouver it came at the end of Game 6 when they found themselves poised to blow a 3-0 lead in games as Presidents Trophy winner. They would have spent the summer cleaning the egg off their faces had they lost Game 7 to Chicago, but the Canucks stared into the face of adversity, and adversity blinked. Like Jim Lovell said in the movie Apollo 13, “looks like we’ve had out glitch for this mission.”

Why Vancouver won’t win: The Canucks scored 16 goals in their first round series with Chicago, eight of them coming from Daniel Sedin and Alex Burrows. Eight came from the other 19 skaters who dressed. If the Canucks don’t get some more production from down the roster, they could be had...their season exploding like the Apollo 13 service module did after their supposed "glitch."

Canuck on the hot seat: Henrik Sedin. The defending Hart Trophy winner is the “assist” half of the Sedin twins, and he had five of them in round one. But no goals and a minus-4? That’s not a long term formula for Vancouver success.

Why Nashville will win: They are the little engine that could. Pekka Rinne stops pucks, and the Predators put them in from all over the place. Twelve different Predators had goals for Nashville in round one. No one is as recognizable as a Jonathan Toews or a Patrick Kane, but they have the kind of balance that can make up for the lack of star power. And they are a very sturdy 5-on-5 team (fourth in ratio of goals scored to goals allowed in round one).

Why Nashville won’t win: Penalty killing. The Predators had a good regular season killing penalties (84.9 percent; 5th in the league), but Anaheim saw or found something in it to exploit. The Ducks scored eight times in 27 man advantages (a 70.4 percent kill rate). The Canucks have more fire power – best power play in the league in the regular season. If Vancouver can exploit whatrever flaw the Ducks found, this will be a short series.

Predator on the hot seat: Sergei Kostitsyn. In his first post-season in 2008 Sergei Kostitsyn scored three goals in 12 games. In 12 games since, covering three post-seasons, he has no gosals. He had none in the first round against Anaheim. If the Predators are to have a chance in this series, he needs to break the string.

In the end, this is will versus skill. A lot of times, “will” wins out, but Vancouver simply has too much skill and might have dodged their bullet in the opening round.

Vancouver in 6


Western Conference Semifinal: San Jose (2) vs. Detroit (3)

Theme: You have learned well, my young padawan...

Why San Jose will win: Isn’t it about time? This might be the most talented team never to play in a Stanley Cup final. In six years leading up to this one the Sharks played in 13 playoff rounds and won seven of them. Not a good batting average. What makes this year different, perhaps, is that Joe Thornton and Dany Heatley don’t have to be “Joe Thornton” and “Dany Heatley.” The Sharks got meaningful production from Joe Pavelski (20 goals), Ryan Clowe (24 goals), and got a big season out of rookie Logan Couture (32 goals), freeing up Thornton to be “Thornton,” and Heatley to be “Heatley.” They have a better mix.

Why San Jose won’t win: goaltending. Detroit can make a good goalie look average and an average goalie look bad. Antti Niemi has his moments, but few of them came in round one. He was fine in Game 1 of the series against the Los Angeles Kings, allowing two goals on 35 shots in a 3-2 overtime win. However, he allowed 17 goals on 104 shots in five other appearances in the series. A .837 save percentage kind of performance is going to be a Christmas ham to a starvin’ man for the Red Wings.

Shark on the hot seat: Dan Boyle. He is their minutes leader (by miles, more than five minutes a game more than Marc-Eduoard Vlasic), the leading scorer for the defense (50 points), the triggerman on the power play (27 points). The extent to which his production matches that of the Red Wings’ Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski will go a long way to determining who wins this series.

Why the Red Wings will win: It is the natural order of things. Whereas the Sharks have a history of disappointment, the Red Wings are quite the opposite. Starting in 1995, when they went to the Stanley Cup finals for the first time since 1966, the Red Wings have gone past the second round eight times in 15 post-seasons, including three of the last four. The Wings bring many of the players who led them past the second round three times in the last four seasons into this game. Nothing is going to upset the likes of Lidstrom, Henrik Zetterberg, Pavel Datsyuk, and all the other Red Wings that have become so well known.

Why the Red Wings won’t win: If you watched them in the Phoenix series, you might be tempted to say, “uh…nothing to see here.” They looked that good. But there is a soft underbelly here that the Sharks might be able to exploit. Defensemen Brad Stuart was on ice for seven goals against in four games, Niklas Kronwall for five. It could be the tiniest sliver of weakness the Sharks can exploit.

Red Wing on the hot seat: Jimmy Howard. The Red Wings don’t ask their goalie to win games often. They are a veteran enough team among the skaters to be able to keep their goalie from seeing a lot of scoring chances, and they are skilled enough at puck possession to keep the heat on at the other end of the ice. Howard was good enough in round one – 2.50 GAA and .915 save percentage. He will probably have to play better to match those numbers in the second round. San Jose poses a larger offensive threat than did Phoenix.

In the end, there might be a tipping point being reached with this series. San Jose has served a long apprenticeship in the art of winning, coming up short often and painfully. The Red Wings have made a habit of winning. But while the Red Wings are still very talented and experienced, and the Sharks are still capable of lifting the hearts of fans into their throats, this is the year when the guard is changed. It is San Jose’s time.

Sharks in seven

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinal, Capitals vs. Lightning

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Round two! Let’s set the stage for what we are talking about here. Including this season: thirty six seasons… 22 times in the playoffs… nine times making the second round. Winning the second round…

Twice.

We’re getting into the thin air of Capitals history here, and if there is a theme to be had in the second round series about to unfold with the Tampa Bay Lightning, it would be, “The Right Stuff.” To borrow from the narrator in the film by that name…

"There was a demon that lived in the playoffs. They said if the Caps challenged him, they would die. Their sticks would freeze up, their skates would wobble wildly, and they would disintegrate. The demon lived at about May 15th on the calendar, four weeks into the post season, where the bad thoughts about seasons past and underachieving could no longer move out of the way. He lived behind a barrier through which they said no Cap could ever pass. They called it the second round of the playoffs."


In Round Two we are going to get a clearer picture if this collection of players has “the right stuff” to achieve what no other Capitals team has accomplished. And in facing the test, the Capitals will be challenged by a familiar foe.

The View from 30,000 Feet

The Capitals and Lightning finished the regular season with similar results – wins (Caps 48/Lightning 46), points (Caps 107/Lightning 103), finishes (Caps 7-2-1/Lightning 7-3-0), home record (both with 25 wins), road record (Caps with two more wins). But how they got there represent two very different sets of numbers (click for larger version):



In the Lightning the Caps might be looking at a combination of a mirror and a time machine. Tampa Bay is clearly – in the season-long numbers (and hold that thought) – an offensive-oriented team. Fourteen times this season the Lightning scored five or more goals (the Caps had 13 such games, but seven of them came in the first 24 games of the year). They were an explosive team. And they could be exploded upon; 15 times they allowed five or more goals (it happened five times to the Caps, none in their last 30 games).

You would get the impression that the Lightning were a run-and-gun team of the sort that would look more than a bit like the Caps from last year. You would not be entirely correct in that conclusion, not in looking at the latter stages of the regular season. It would be easy to say that the Lightning changed their approach with the arrival of goaltender Dwayne Roloson from the New York Islanders (in trade for defenseman Ty Wishart in early January). In fact, Roloson won his first game with the Lightning, a 1-0 overtime shutout of Washington on January 4th. But an 8-1 pasting at the hands of the Penguins the following night and a six goal hemorrhage in a 6-1 loss to New Jersey four days later suggested that a “defense-first” mind-set had not quite yet arrived.

The epiphany might have come with consecutive losses by a combined 11-6 margin in mid-January to New Jersey (again) and Carolina. Those losses left the Lightning deadlocked with the Caps with 57 standings points, but it could not have looked good the way they got there. The Lightning followed that up with three consecutive Gimmick wins in which they allowed a total of only five goals. It propelled them to a six-game winning streak (their longest of the season) in which they allowed a total of only six goals, Roloson recording two shutouts along the way. Over the last 35 games of the season the Lightning allowed only 2.51 goals per game. Not the Caps, perhaps, but certainly an improvement over how they started the season.

But having said that, the Lightning have been a team that seems to have their focus wander, for whatever reason. They are a formidable club early in games – 51 times they scored the game’s first goal this season, and they outscored their opponents by almost one-third goal per game in the first two periods. But the Lightning didn’t finish games well, ending the season with the 24th best record when scoring first, a product of their giving almost all of the advantage earned in the first two periods of games in the third (a minus-0.29 goals per game in the third period).

Special Teams

The fault line on which this series might be settled is special teams, specifically the Tampa Bay power play. The Lightning are efficient on the power play (sixth in the league), but only one team has had more opportunities with the man-advantage this year than the 336 chances bestowed upon the Lightning. And only one team had more power play goals than the 69 scored by the Lightning. The flip side of this is that no team in the league allowed more shorthanded goals than did Tampa Bay – 16. The next highest number among teams surviving in the second round is the seven shorties allowed by Detroit and San Jose. It is worth noting that the Caps were 23-for-26 in penalty killing against the Lightning in the regular season (88.5 percent). If the Caps can whittle the chances per game down and keep that kind of efficiency, the Lightning will be in a world of hurt.

The Series

Washington and Tampa played head-to-head six times this season with the Caps winning four of the contests and getting shut out in the two losses (note: Caps score, Caps win). It was an interesting season series, sort of the season in microcosm…

Game 1: November 11, Capitals 6 – Lightning 3. If you looked at the first period alone, you might have thought is was a goaltender’s battle. Tampa’s Teddy Purcell had the only goal in the first period. Washington grabbed the lead in the second on goals by Tom Poti and Mike Knuble, but Tampa tied things up early in the third on a power play goal by Ryan Malone. After that, it was the Alexander Semin show. Semin scored three goals in 15 minutes (including an empty netter), and Alex Ovechkin added another to give the Caps the win going away.

Game 2: November 26th, Capitals 6 – Lightning 0. It was another case of little scoring early; John Carlson had the only goal of the first period, beating Tampa Bay’s Mike Smith barely three minutes into the contest. But there was that Semin fellow again, recording a natural hat trick in the second period to end the competitive portion of the evening. At the other end, Semyon Varlamov had a relatively easy time of it, seeing only 17 Lightning shots, stopping them all for his first shutout of the season. The Caps had two power play goals in the game, the last time they would have more than one in a game in almost three months.

Game 3: January 4th, Lightning 1 – Capitals 0 (OT). In the first game after the Winter Classic in Pittsburgh, the Caps came out flat and ended the night flatter. Dwayne Roloson jumped between the pipes for the first time in a Lightning jersey, and he was the story, stopping all 34 shots he saw, 21 of them in the second period. Semyon Varlamov almost matched him save for save, but allowed a goal to Martin St. Louis in the third minute of the extra session. The Caps were outshot in that overtime, 5-0.

Game 4: January 12th, Lightning 3 – Capitals 0. Roloson made it two in a row in shutouts over the Caps but had a much easier time of it in Tampa. He faced only 23 shots for the contest, only five of them coming in the third period. He even chipped in an assist on the first, game-winning goal by Dominic Moore. Sean Bergenheim and Simon Gagne had the other goals for Tampa Bay.

Game 5: February 4th, Capitals 5 – Lightning 2

This one looked an awful lot like Game 1. Teddy Purcell – just as in Game 1 – got the game’s first goal in the game’s fourth minute. But Nicklas Backstrom put an end to that fun when he scored midway through the period to send the teams off tied at one for the first intermission. Brooks Laich and Alex Ovechkin scored less than two minutes apart in the second period, and although Brett Clark got one back on a power play before the second intermission, it was Backstrom one more time at 12:22 of the third to provide insurance and Jason Chimera to drive the stake through the heart of the Lightning with an empty netter in the last minute.

Game 6, March 7th: Capitals 2 - Lightning 1 (OT/SO)

It was a case of not how you start, but how you finish for the Caps in this one. Sean Bergenheim scored at 12:30 of the first period, and goalie Dwayne Roloson almost made it stand up, although the Caps were not exactly peppering him with shots – 17 over the first two periods. But Alexander Semin scored a goal – his seventh against the Lightning for the season – at 14:28 to tie the game and send it to overtime. The Caps did a better job of pressuring Roloson in the extra session, firing ten shots on goal. But none got through, and it was left to the Gimmick to settle this one, Alex Ovechkin netting the game winner and ending the season series… well, until now.

Competition

Against the other seven teams making the playoff eight in the Eastern Conference, the Caps went 17-6-7, including 4-1-1 against Tampa Bay. The Lightning went 16-11-3 against the other seven teams in the Eastern eight, including 2-3-1 against the Caps.

Goaltending

This is something of an unknown in this respect. Michal Neuvirth had only two appearances against the Lightning this season and only one decision, that coming in the teams’ first meeting back on Veterans Day (a 6-3 Caps win). He has four appearances against the Lightning in his career, winning both decisions on his record, but not with what you’d call sterling numbers – 3.38 GAA and a .905 save percentage.

On the other hand, Dwayne Roloson is an open book. This year he appeared four times against the Caps in a Lightning jersey and went 2-1-1 with a 1.23 GAA and .959 save percentage. That was fueled by two shutouts eight days apart in January. His performance was hardly a fluke. In 17 career appearances against the Caps he is 8-5-4, with a 2.11 GAA, a .923 save percentage, and four shutouts.

Coaching

They have vaguely similar backgrounds, but Bruce Boudreau and Guy Boucher came through the coaching ranks at very different speeds. The journey of the Caps’ Bruce Boudreau is no secret to Caps fans. Four seasons in the IHL, primarily with Fort Wayne, three with the Mississippi Sea Wolves of the ECHL (where he won a title), nine seasons with three teams in the AHL, the last three in Hershey where he won a Calder Cup in his first year behind the bench and went to the finals in the following year. In his third year in Hershey he was called up to the Caps on Thanksgiving, where he led the Caps on an amazing ascent through the standings and into the 2008 playoffs, winning the Jack Adams Award in the process. Three more seasons, three more playoff appearances, although the results did not match the promise of that first season when the Caps looked poised to make a series of deep playoff runs.

Boucher climb through the coaching ranks was much quicker. From his beginnings as an assistant at McGill University in 1996, he moved to Rouyn-Nornada in the QMJHL, then to Rimouski in the Q in 2003. In 2006 he moved to Drummondville in the QMJHL, then made the leap to the Hamilton Bulldogs in 2009. In the 2009-2010 season at Hamilton he coached the Bulldogs to a 115-point finish and won the AHL coach of the year award. It was impressive enough to earn not one, but two NHL job offers. He declined the offer from the Columbus Blue Jackets to take the helm in Tampa this past season. And at age 39 he led the Lightning to their first playoff berth since 2007.

Both coaches are likely to get some Adams consideration this season, and both appear to have a very good feel for the talent they have and the ability to push the right buttons. Boudreau got Alex Ovechkin to buy into a defense-first concept 35 games into the season. Boucher got Vincent Lecavalier to be something of a goal scorer again, the former 50-goal scorer potting pucks at a 32-goal scoring rate for the season.

If there are questions about either, they would be Boudreau’s ability to adjust on the fly to adversity (a problem in the Montreal series last year), while for Boucher it is whether or not he is ready for prime time, this being only his second season behind the bench of a professional hockey team.

Players you expect to do well…and had better

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

The Caps were able to cope with Nicklas Backstrom’s lack of offensive production in round one, given that the Rangers were so offensively challenged. Backstrom had a pretty good series in other aspect of the game, but one point in this series is not likely to cut it. He is 5-23-28, plus-11 in 26 career games against the Lightning. The offensive drought might have been an aberration. In 28 career playoff games coming into this post season, Backstrom was 12-18-30.

Tampa Bay: Steven Stamkos

Steven Stamkos had 38 goals by the end of January, then went the last three months and 31 games with a total of seven. He did not exactly come alive in the first round series against the Penguins, recording a pair of goals in seven games. He is likely going to have to do better if the Lightning are to upset the Caps. It is certainly possible; he is 8-4-12 (but a minus-10) in 18 career games against Washington.

Players you might not think of as possible heroes…

Washington: Karl Alzner

If the Capitals are going to shut down the Lightning, especially on the power play, Alzner is likely to play a role. Of the eight goals scored by the Rangers in round one, Alzner was on the ice for five of them. But consider that Alzner also spent an average of 23:35 of ice time a game, and there were 48 defensemen who were on the ice for more goals in round one.

Tampa Bay: Sean Bergenheim

Sean Bergenheim scored the series-clinching goal for Tampa Bay in the first round against Pittsburgh, and it was his third goal of the series. Only Martin St. Louis had more (four). If the Lightning can get secondary production out of Bergenheim in this series, things could get very uncomfortable for the Caps.

In the end, we have the same feeling about this series as we did about the first round series against the Rangers. The Lightning have improved on defense over their first 50 games or so, but no one is going to confuse them with being impenetrable. And the Caps are not the Crosby-less, Malkin-less Penguins when it comes to scoring. We think this series is going to come down to how well the Caps can contain the Tampa Bay power play. The Caps were 19 of 20 (95.0 percent) in killing Ranger penalties in round one, but Washington moves up in weight class with the Lightning power play. The Lightning had a fat and happy time of it on the power play in the first round, going 8-for-27 (29.6 percent) against Pittsburgh. As much as the conversion rate was the 27 chances in seven games. If the Caps can hold down chances, their own chances improve significantly.

The Caps beat a team in the first round that finished rather well to end the season (11-7-1 in their last 19 games). Tampa didn’t finish as well and struggled against a team that couldn’t score. The Caps will not have that problem, even with Caps-killer Dwayne Roloson in goal. This series goes about as long as the last one.

Caps in five

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Sittin' at the end of the bar... The First Round Is On Me

A few beer-addled first round musings…

-- OK, I can see Detroit scoring four-and-a-half a game in the first round, even with a supposedly elite goalie in Ilya Bryzgalov in the opponent’s net. But hey, Nashville finished 21st in the league in scoring in the regular season and is second in the playoffs (3.67/game). Goes to show how bad Anaheim’s goaltending was. Pekka Rinne will have to find his inner “Pekka Rinne” if the Preds are to go any further.

-- Of the top eight teams in the playoffs in 5-on-5 play, seven are into the next round (DET, WAS, PHI, NSH, SJS BOS, PIT...oops, I meant TBL). Only Chicago has been eliminated.

-- On the other hand, of the top eight teams on the power play, four have been eliminated (ANA, PHX, BUF, LAK).

-- All’s not well that starts well… Buffalo leads the playoff teams in first period goals scored. They’re out. Los Angeles is second. Adios.

-- 279 goals were scored so far in the first round, none of them by Nicklas Backstrom. And while we’re at it, none by the defending Hart Trophy winner, Henrik Sedin, either.

-- Thomas Vanek had five goals in Buffalo’s series with the Flyers, four of them on the power play. He was also a minus-7 for the series (325th of 325 players having dressed). That’s what you call “power play specialist.” Bet it’s not what Lindy Ruff had in mind.

-- Erstwhile Norris Trophy candidate Kris Letang… 11 goals scored against while on ice. No player saw more goals in the first round in so up close and personal a way. But teammates Paul Martin and Pascal Dupuis had just as close a look.

-- If I was to tell you that Alex Ovechkin was in the top ten in hits so far, you’d probably believe me (he is). If I told you Nathan Gerbe – all 5’5”, 178 pounds of him – was in the top-25, you might not (he is).

-- Christmas in April…Wayne Simmonds and Drew Doughty were first and third in giveaways (21 between them). Who was tied with Simmonds for first? Letang (probably going to want to forget this playoff).

-- No time for Nicklas’. Nicklas Backstrom has no points at even strength. Nicklas Lidstrom has one.

-- I’d have gone through a lot of names before I guessed “Tyler Myers” as having been whistled for the most minor penalties (eight) in the first round.

-- 49 games, eight fights. Good? Bad?

-- Penguins got 33 goals from defensemen in 82 games this season. Against Tampa Bay in the first round… none.

-- Speaking of defensemen, didn’t know this until I stumbled upon in, but the Caps got goals from 10 different defensemen this season out of 11 who dressed. Brian Fahey was the only one that dressed (seven games) and did not record a goal. All of them, including Fahey, recorded at least one point.

-- Back to the first round… Not too surprised that the Flyers’ Claude Giroux leads all players in assists. But Mike Cammalleri second? And Corey Perry – the only 50-goal scorer this season – tied with him for second?

-- Think shots don’t matter? Of the top eight teams in shots per game, seven advanced. The outlier among advancing teams …Tampa Bay, who finished dead last in the first round in shots per game (25.7).

And the best statistics table of all on NHL.com has got to be this one (click for bigger pic)...

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Better Now Than Then, Getting from There to Here

On October 8th, the Caps dressed a 20-man squad for the season opener that featured a pair of defensemen, a center, and a pair of goaltenders, none of whom had reached their 23rd birthday. A quarter of a team’s complement that dressed for opening night had a combined total of 127 games of NHL regular season experience. You might think this the sort of thing an expansion team, or a team that had low expectations would try, not a Stanley Cup contender.

But that is precisely what the Washington Capitals did on opening night last October. They dressed John Carlson and Karl Alzner on defense (22 and 51 games of experience, respectively), Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov (22 and 32 games, respectively), and Marcus Johansson (appearing in his first game in North America).

But in this quintet of players you can see the Capitals personnel management plan in stark relief. Carlson and Alzner were the go-to defensive pair for the Hershey Bears in their Calder Cup-winning effort the previousspring, and both got a taste of playing time in the first round playoff series the Caps played against Montreal. Neuvirth was the goaltender on that Calder Cup winner, and in fact backstopped the Bears to two consecutive Calders, winning a most valuable player award in the first of them. Varlamov’s lack of experience might have been a product of injury as much as circumstance, his already having been called upon in two NHL post-seasons to provide a spark at the position. Johansson had represented Sweden in two world junior championships, serving as captain in his second tour.

These were players with scant NHL experience but with enough schooling to assume a role with the big club – a contending club – on opening night, even if it meant there would be a crowd of such players. But here is the important part. Even if you might have been inclined to believe (and it would have been a reasonable conclusion) that a contending club was not the place for five such players of limited experience, including both goaltenders, to play at once, the object of the exercise was not “opening night.” It was here, now, in the spring as the Caps prepare for the second round of the Stanley Cup tournament.

Players with this kind of preparation could be, and should be expected to be much better after Game 82 of the regular season than after Game 1. In fact, none of them had an especially good night in a 4-2 loss to the Thrashers in Game 1. Carlson played 18 minutes and took a late penalty that snuffed out any dim hopes the Caps might have had to comeback from a two-goal deficit. Alzner played 14 minutes and was a minus-1, on ice for the Thrashers insurance goal with five minutes left. Johansson played 13 minutes, did not record a shot on goal, and lost seven of eight faceoffs. Neuvirth allowed four goals on 27 shots, and Varlamov was the backup goaltender for the evening. Not an especially auspicious start for the quintet.

You got a better picture of what was to come in the Caps second game, their home opener. Alzner played 14 minutes, had two blocked shots and a takeaway in addition to a couple of shots on goal. Carlson had a goal that would become something of a mini-legend and a couple of assists. Johansson logged almost 15 minutes and won seven of 11 draws while getting a couple of pucks on net. Neuvirth stopped 31 of 33 shots, including the last 27 he faced in a 7-2 win over the New Jersey Devils.

But again, the object of the exercise in giving these players ice time was not October, it was now. And that is a matter of getting from “there” to “here.” In Johansson’s first ten games he averaged only 12:51 of ice time, a product of Tomas Fleischmann getting his chance to fill the second line center role and pushing Johansson down the ladder. He recorded only one point – a goal – in those first ten games and was a minus-5. In his last ten games, though, he was 2-1-3, plus-3, and perhaps most important was averaging 16:28 in ice time, doing time on any of the top three lines and centering a variety of wingers from Alex Ovechkin or Alexander Semin to Jason Chimera or Eric Fehr. Although he still needs work in being able to compete in the corners and on his faceoffs, he has become one of the most versatile forwards on the team and his speed and skating ability fits in nicely with the talent mix the Caps employ.

Carlson and Alzner, “Carlzner” to Caps fans, have become as reliable a pair of defensemen as the Caps have. Each played in all 82 games for the Caps this season, and unlike Johansson, who had to orient himself to the NHL game, this pair hit the ground running. Carlson was 1-5-6, plus-3 in his first ten games, but it was an un-rookie like moment that might have announced him as a player who wasn’t going to serve much of a rookie apprenticeship. That came in the home opener, after he had already notched a goal and two assists in the game. With 4:07 to go in the contest, and three fights having been fought in the previous ten seconds of game time, Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond jumped Marcus Johansson after a faceoff. Fighting not being much of Johansson’s game, and it being almost all of Letourneau-Leblond’s, it was a mismatch. It was Carlson jumping in first in defense of his teammate for which he earned a roughing minor and a game misconduct – the Carlson Hat Trick…goal, assist, misconduct. It wouldn’t end there. Carlson was arguably the top defenseman in his rookie class this season.

Alzner isn’t quite as flashy as Carlson, and his marks early – no points in his first ten games, even – suggest a lackluster start. But that’s really the point in Alzner’s game. Not so much “luster” (and the risk one bears in trying for the numbers that accompany it) as it is steady play, as reflected in his 16:42 of average ice time. And steady? Well, there is this…in those first ten games Alzner was 0-0-0, even, with six shots on goal in 16:42 of average ice time. In his last ten games he was 0-0-0, even, with six shots on goal in 23:15 of average ice time. He was an accomplished defenseman at the dawn of the season, but one the Caps leaned on – with Carlson – by year’s end.

Neuvirth and Varlamov came into the season as partners and competitors fighting to answer the question of who would be the Caps number one goaltender and having to answer doubts about either’s ability to assume that responsibility. For Varlamov, it wasn’t a matter of talent, but of durability. He was already a veteran of 19 playoff games over two seasons, but in those two season played only 32 games in the regular season. He managed only 27 appearances this season, not getting his first until he jumped into the crease in relief of a flu-bitten Michal Neuvirth in a 3-1 loss to Boston on October 19th. He played in one more game (a loss), then would not appear again until November 24th, when he recorded his first win of the season. If anything, this was Varlamov’s year of adversity. In addition to the injuries (four separate occurrences, referred to as: “undisclosed,” “groin,” “lower-body,” and ”knee”), he was not well rewarded for his performance when he was in the lineup. Despite his posting a 2.23 goals against average and .924 save percentage (both bests in his abbreviated three-year career), he was streaky in the win-loss department. Four straight wins in late November and early December were followed by four straight losses… then five straight in which he was 4-0-1… five straight losses… closing the season by alternating wins and losses with a Gimmick loss thrown in for good measure. The talent was clearly there, but the results were lacking.

Results have not been Michal Neuvirth’s problem. He came into the season fresh off consecutive Calder Cup championships with Hershey, but the question here was whether that could translate into NHL success for a goalie who had a grand total of 22 games of NHL experience with unexceptional numbers (2.80, .910). He was thrown into the fire early with Varlamov on the shelf. But he was arguably the Caps most valuable player to start the season. In his first 17 appearances he was 12-3-0, 2.56, .912, and one shutout. Not bad for a team that had yet to find its defensive theme. Neuvirth was even slightly better late – 11-4-0 in his last 16 appearances, with a 2.43 GAA, a .916 save percentage, and two shutouts. He finished third among all rookie goaltenders in wins (the two goalies in front of him playing in substantially more games), third in goals against average and tied for the lead in shutouts.

More than a few observers wondered whether giving a couple of kid defensemen so much ice time or putting the fate of the season in the hands of a couple of youngsters who represented “legitimately below average” goaltending or giving a center who had zero minutes of experience in a hockey rink in North America valuable minutes was such a bright idea. But this season did not start for the Caps with October in mind. With eyes focused on the spring and (hopefully) early summer, inserting five such young players into the lineup was not quite as bad as putting five functional “rookies” out there. These five players were prepared as best a team can prepare prospects to contribute early and be critical elements late in the season. This is what one hopes happens when a club has a developmental “system” that can prepare a John Carlson, a Karl Alzner, or a Michal Neuvirth in a winning atmosphere before they take the ice for good in a red jersey. It speaks to the ability to identify not only talent, as in the case of a Semyon Varlamov or a Marcus Johansson, but the ability to recognize the ability to play in big games under pressure –Varlamov expressing that in his ability to perform well in relief in two playoffs with the Caps and Johansson as part of Team Sweden in two world junior championships and two seasons with F√§rjestads BK in the Swedish Elite League.

For some, those who might not have been watching closely what the Caps have been doing over the last several years, putting these five players into positions of considerable responsibility to start the season might not have looked to them like a great idea at the time.

But it certainly looks like a fine idea now.

Monday, April 25, 2011

A Picture Is Worth a Thousand Trips to the Bakery

Think going to the net is not its own reward?  Here (courtesy of the Washington Post) is a graphic of where the goals came from in the series.  The furthest Caps goal came from 36 feet, the overtime goal by Alexander Semin off a Jason Arnott feed in Game 1.  Only one other of the 13 total goals the Caps scored came from outside 20 feet.



(click the pic for a larger view)

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 5: Capitals 3 - Rangers 1

Consider the door slammed.

The Washington Capitals slammed the door early on any chance for the New York Rangers to establish momentum and closed out their opening round series with a 3-1 win at Verizon Center, winning the series four games to one.

The Caps imposed their will early when Marcus Johansson drew a tripping penalty on Ranger defenseman Bryan McCabe at 5:42 of the first period. Less than 20 seconds later it was a case of the Capitals doing what they needed to do – going to the net. Although the faceoff after the penalty call was won by the Rangers, the Rangers could not move the puck out of the zone. Alexander Semin, of all people, threw a hit on Brandon Dubinsky that kept the Rangers from getting control, the puck sliding out to Alex Ovechkin at the left point. Ovechkin moved the puck to Mike Green, who fired from the right point. The puck pinballed around in front of goalie Henrik Lundqvist and came back out to Ovechkin. The Caps forward faked a slap shot and slid the puck to Green creeping down the weak side. Green fired, but Lundqvist got across in time to stop the first drive. The rebound was lost in the maze of red and white jerseys in front of Lundqvist, giving Green enough of an opening to jump in and push the puck through Lundqvist for the score, the first goal scored in the first period in this series.

The score held up until the 7:04 mark in the second when Jeff Schultz and Nicklas Backstrom double-teamed Dubinsky in the corner in the Capitals’ end of the ice. Backstrom eventually came out with the puck, easing it up to Brooks Laich, who backhanded it up to Scott Hannan. The Caps defenseman spotted Alex Ovechkin streaking down the right side. Hannan’s pass found Ovechkin in stride at the red line, and Marc Staal was the only defender back for the Blueshirts. Ovechkin took the puck wide on the right side, lowered his shoulder, and curled to the crease. He showed Lundqvist a forehand as Staal was desperately trying to tie him up, but Ovechkin had position and leverage on Staal, enough to be able to pull the puck to his backhand and stuff it just inside the far post to give the Caps a 2-0 lead.

Whatever dim chance the Rangers had to get themselves back into the game in the third period was snuffed out when Jeff Schultz worked the puck back around the Caps net past Ranger Wojtek Wolski to Scott Hannan. Hannan moved the puck up the left side to Marco Sturm, who one-handed it out of the zone. Marcus Johansson collected the puck and started up ice with the Rangers caught on a 2-on-1 disadvantage. Johansson held the puck until he was at the top of the left wing circle. Then he chipped a saucer pass past the lone defender – Marc Staal, who was at the end of a long shift (57 seconds) – to Alexander Semin coming down the right side. As the puck landed, Semin’s blade found it, lifting the puck through Lundqvist to give the Caps some added insurance.

Wojtek Wolski spoiled the shutout, banging home a rebound past goalie Michal Neuvirth with 31.5 seconds left for the final score, but it was merely window dressing on a day where the Caps dominated and slammed the door on the Rangers.

Other stuff…

-- Folks will ooh and ahh about the Ovechkin goal, and well they should. But it also should be noted that Marc Staal was gassed, skating what would end up being a 1:06 shift that ended in that goal.

-- As the series went on, the Rangers found themselves less and less able to contend with the Caps’ speed. Marcus Johansson – and hasn’t he come a long way this season – was especially adept at using his speed to created time and space to make plays, and it worked one more time yesterday by backing off Staal to give him the opportunity to find Semin for the third goal.

-- The two points for Ovechkin lifted him into a tie for fifth in points in the post season. Curious thing…of the top eight scorers on the NHL.com listings, none are in “plus” territory.

-- Two defensemen who gave their all. Mike Green gets the Caps off and running by being persistent in following up a shot, then taking one off the noggin at 13:49 of the first period that sent him to the dressing room for some quiet time. He made it back to the bench in the third period and might have played, had he been needed. Fortunately, he wasn’t. And on the other side, Dan Girardi, who took a shot off his hand that dislocated a finger above the knuckle, and he took another shot off his ankle that would require X-rays after the game. He also was cut by teammate Chris Drury’s stick after a scrum following Green’s goal that required stitches. John Tortorella said of him later, "No one talked about him and he was our best defenseman the whole series.” Amen to that.

-- Someone should have given Brooks Laich a pre-game meal, that is, if you are listening to Sean Avery. The Rangers’ pest said Laich bit him in the second period.

-- The Caps were not going to go quietly. They sent 36 shot attempts at Henrik Lundqvist in the first period. Thirteen on goal, 13 blocked, and ten misses. Think about that…36 shot attempt in 20 minutes…a shot attempt every 33 seconds. Mr. Corsi and Mr. Fenwick had to be smiling.

-- Marian Gaborik gets the Semin Award for futility in this series (named for the Capital who went 0-for-44 in shots in last year’s playoffs). Gaborik went 1-for-20 in shooting in this series, including 0-for-5 yesterday.

-- Then again, maybe it goes to Brian Boyle. He led the Rangers in shots on goal with 25 (and was arguably their most dangerous offensive player in this series) and failed to convert any of them.

-- The Young Guns put together their games yesterday…Ovechkin with a goal, an assist, plus-1, four shots, ten shot attempts, and three hits…Mike Green with the first goal, a hit, and a blocked shot in 5:36 before getting hurt… Alexander Semin with the cherry on the sundae late and three hits. But while Nicklas Backstrom did not have a point, he might have had his best game of the series. Two blocked shots, seven wins in 13 draws, and he was a maestro in moving the puck short distances under pressure to an open teammate to get the puck out of trouble.

-- In fact, short passes were the key to the day. The Caps were clicking on those little 8-10 foot passes in their own end to foil the Ranger forecheck and get the puck to a teammate with more time and space to move the puck up and out of the Caps’ zone.

-- Brooks Laich had a quietly productive series with four assists in five games and 55.1 percent wins in the circle.

-- Jason… open net, buddy. What happened? We’re going to call it “bad ice.”

-- Boyd Gordon didn’t have a point in this series, but he was big when and where it mattered… an incredible 69.1 percent wins on faceoffs, and he was on the ice for a grand total of one Ranger goal (his not being on the ice for any Caps goals is why he is a minus-1).

-- 207… the number of blocked shots the two teams combined for in this series, the Caps with 104, the Rangers with 103. They are one-two in the league rankings.

-- 392 … the combined number of hits by the two teams in this series, the Rangers with 211, the Caps with 181. They rank one-three in the league.

-- A key in this series… the Rangers were impotent at five-on-five. Six goals in five games (second fewest, with only Phoenix – in one less game – scoring fewer).

-- But what killed the Rangers was the Caps penalty killing. Yes, the Rangers were 1-for-20 on the power play, but what was key here was that the Rangers had only 22 shots on goal on the power play for the series (Michal Neuvirth stopping 21 of them), even though they did have five sots on two man-advantages yesterday. The penalty killers denied the Rangers scoring opportunities, and Neuvirth did the rest… just like you draw it up.

-- What do Marco Sturm, Jeff Schultz, and Alexander Semin have in common? None were on the ice for any goals against in this series.

-- Of the 13 goals the Caps scored in the series, Mike Green was on the ice for seven of them (seven of 11, if you count the time he was actually available, two of the goals yesterday coming after he was injured). Alexander Semin was on the ice for six of them.

-- Give Chris Drury credit. He probably came back too early from his knee injury. If his time on ice and faceoffs are considered, it was probably the only reason he was out there. In 6:49 of ice time yesterday, he took 12 draws. In 53 minutes and change of total ice time in the series he took 70 faceoffs (and won 44 of them for a 62.9 percent winning percentage). Seventy faceoffs on 101 shifts. He deserves credit for doing what he was able to do.

-- And no Ranger deserves more credit than Henrik Lundqvist. One cannot help watching him and thinking of the Caps’ Olaf Kolzig, a goaltender on whose shoulders his team’s fortunes often rested, but not quite able to do just about everything by himself. Lundqvist was the Rangers’ hope in this series, and while he played well, he was not perfect (or even “Neuvirthian”). The Rangers will be better – they have a decent core of young players – but one wonders if Lundqvist will be. He is in his prime, but he keeps coming up short in the playoffs (15-20 career record). His teams just don’t seem to have enough punch to give him relief. In that respect he is very much like Kolzig, although the two were/are very different goaltenders in style. Lundqvist seems, like Kolzig, to be a class act who takes losing every bit as hard as did the former Caps netminder. Even if he wears Ranger colors, he is the kind of player you root for. You get the feeling he deserves better than he has gotten in terms of support and wonder if he ever will get it in his future.

In the end, the Rangers just did not have the horsepower to compete with the Caps. It wasn’t just talent, which Coach John Tortorella acknowledged wasn’t “there yet” in comparison to the Caps. The Caps beat the Rangers as much with speed as with talent. The Rangers just could not counter the Caps’ advantage in speed with their own ability to forecheck and control pucks below the opponent’s goal line. The Caps used equal parts deft passing and leg speed (watching the Rangers trying to contend with Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson was almost painful to watch) to break the Rangers’ ability to control the offensive zone.

And now it just gets harder. The Rangers posed problems for the Capitals in terms of their work ethic and ability to pin teams in their own end. But the Caps solved those problems by matching the Rangers’ compete level and using their superior talent to move pucks out of danger. But one problem the Rangers did not pose was offering much by way of explosive offense, especially with the cold streak that plagued Marian Gaborik. The teams the Caps could face in round two – Montreal, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, or Tampa Bay – could pose greater challenges for the defense. But the Caps have passed their first quarter test in this tournament, and given the team’s history is no small feat, especially in the quick fashion it was done. So good on them, and rest up. Let the other guys play six and seven game series. You’ve got four under your belt.

Just take ‘em one at a time… 12 more times.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Capitals vs. Rangers, Game 5

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals return to Washington this afternoon in a 3:00 tilt against the New York Rangers. It’s Game 5 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal and a chance for the Caps to slam the door on the Ran…

“You know, you need to be careful about slamming doors.”

Beg your pardon?

“Doors…some doors are for slamming. Others aren’t.”

Didn’t know there were rules about such things.

“Well, that’s where I come in…’Lochan Key’ is the name, and my specialty is doors.”

Doors? With that name shouldn’t you be…

“Yeah, I know. Making keys. Like I haven’t heard that before.”

So, about doors. There are better doors than others for slamming?

“Oh, sure. You wouldn’t want to slam French doors. You’d be spending the rest of the day cleaning up broken glass.”

Good point.

“Now a good solid wood entry door, that’s good slammin’ right there.”

How so?

“Good weight, a nice solid ‘thwack’ when you slam it…can’t go wrong with a good solid wood door for slamming.”

Wouldn’t steel do as well?

“Nah…don’t have the same kind of ‘thud’ as a wood door.”

Is there any kind of door you absolutely do not recommend?

“Pet doors…well, unless you have an Avery running around loose.”

Well, the Caps will be looking to slam the door on Avery and the rest of the Rangers this afternoon as they take a three-games-to-one lead into Game 5. Washington will come into this game with the best defense in the post-season, allowing 1.75 goals per game. It is quite an improvement over last year’s goals allowed-per-game of 2.86 in the opening round loss to Montreal.

Another thing that the Caps have improved upon is their 5-on-5 play, where the Caps’ ratio of 1.60 is a significant improvement over the 1.31 in last year’s opening round series.

Power play? Same thing, but it would be hard not to improve on a 1-for-33 mark. The improvement has not been very impressive, however, if you are interested in effectiveness (volume) as opposed to efficiency (production). The Caps have only two power play goals in this series so far in four games. One might like that they have come on 12 opportunities (16.7 percent), but 12 opportunities?  Only Boston has as few total chances on the power play, and only Vancouver has fewer opportunities on a per-game basis.

The Caps have made up for it on the penalty kill, where they have allowed but a single goal in 18 total shorthanded situations. The 94.4 percent kill rate is quite an improvement over the 80.0 percent (24-for-30) in last year’s first round. But the minus-6 in the comparison of Ranger to Capitals power play opportunities has to be of some concern, not to mention the fact that the Caps have spent almost 11 more minutes killing penalties than have the Rangers (second worst in that statistic among the 16 playoff teams).

Something the Caps have not been able to do so far is to draw penalties as the game goes on. The Caps have put the Rangers shorthanded seven times in four games thus far, but only a total of five times in the second and third periods, and overtime. Meanwhile, the Caps have been shorthanded 12 times in periods two and three, and in overtime. Balancing those numbers and putting that kind of pressure on the Rangers late will be something to watch for this afternoon.

If anything can be said to be the theme of this series it might be “Hollywood Squares,” as in, “I’ll take the Capitals…or the Rangers to block.” The Caps and Rangers rank second and fourth among all playoff teams in blocked shots, and the combined 168 the teams have is miles ahead of the next series (the Buffalo/Philadelphia and Los Angeles/San Jose series each have 146).

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Marian Gaborik

It was Marian Gaborik, doing the right thing the wrong way, who chipped the puck out from under Henrik Lundqvist’s attempt to cover it that led to the overtime game-winning goal by Jason Chimera in Game 4. Gaborik has not been much heard from in this series in the way he is paid to be heard from – he has one goal on 15 shots thus far. And now he is wearing goat-horns of a sort for the defensive play he tried and failed to execute. Gaborik isn’t paid to be a back-checker, although at this stage of the season everyone needs to contribute in that way. If he does, fine. But if he doesn’t ramp up his offense soon, it will be very late for the Rangers. Late as in, “good night.”

Washington: Nicklas Backstrom

Alex Ovechkin gets the press, good and bad, but the curiosity for the Caps in this series is not so much Ovechkin’s two goals and two assists as it is Backstrom’s grand total of one point (an assist) in four games. Boyd Gordon has as many shots on goal, and Karl Alzner has as many points. Those two are paid to be primarily the sort of player who prevents scoring. Backstrom, while a sturdy two-way sort, has to produce more on offense. If he does this afternoon, Caps fans will be going home happy.


Keys:


1. Pucks to the net. The Caps did a better job of this in Game 4 (53 shots on goal, “only” 28 others blocked), and they were rewarded with a four-goal result, even if it took almost five periods to do it. Alexander Semin has been especially adept, with 18 shots in four games. But Backstrom (nine shots) and Brooks Laich (ten), who could be assuming the “Mike Knuble” role today, will be players to watch for in terms of putting shot pressure on Henrik Lundqvist.

2. Balance in the box. The Caps have marched to the penalty box enough for 14 shorthanded situations in the last two games; the Rangers only seven. If the Caps can balance that ledger, perhaps they can establish more offensive rhythm than they have been able to generate in the last two games.

3. Seventh Man. After a night of “can you hear us?” the Verizon Center crowd has a chance to one-up the Madison Square Garden throng with a “you can’t top this” noise level that the Caps might find the tonic to push them over the top and into the next round.

In the end, this is where it comes to an end for the Rangers. All their bullets are gone. Coach John Tortorella has tried to tweak lines, tried inserting Sean Avery into the lineup for some more “energy” (no points, minus-2, two penalty minutes in three games), and Henrik Lundqvist, while often spectacular in goal so far (2.08, .922) can’t do it all by himself game after game. The Caps have not played especially well in four games, and credit the Rangers with having something to do with that with their never-say-die, 200-foot work ethic. But at some point, it’s talent that takes you to the next level, and the Rangers do not match the Caps in that area.

Slam the door! Now!!

Caps 4 – Rangers 2

Friday, April 22, 2011

Two Rookies, One Oppo"net"

Michal Neuvirth has had a pretty decent series against the Rangers so far, and no doubt it is triggering in the minds of Caps fans the question, "which goalie do the Caps hitch their wagon to for the future?"  Yeah, it's much too early in this series for reasonable people to be having such conversations, but this being Washington, a city that seems at times to have invented the term "controversy," you know it's on Caps fans' minds. 

But let's step back a moment and think about these two fine young goalies, Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov.  Each has tremendous promise, albeit refelcted in very different goaltending styles.  And neither has an extensive body of work just yet.  But they do have a common opponent played in similar (which not to say the same) circumstances. 

Both Neuvirth, in this series, and Varlamov, two seasons ago, faced the New York Rangers in the opening round of the playoffs.  And it seems both have taken a liking to playing the Blueshirts in this format.  Overall, the records of Neuvirth and Varlamov against the Rangers in their respective rookie playoff appearances look like this:



They had similar success in terms of being almost impenerable in the friendly confines of Verizon Center:



But even at Madison Square Garden, neither could be said to be a sieve:



The point here is that before folks start clammoring for Neuvirth to be named the once and future successor to the domain of Kolzig, remember that another rookie goaltender had quite a series for the Caps against this same opponent just a short time ago.  We don't point this out to jinx Neuvirth, but merely to highlight once more that the Caps have an embarrassment of riches at the position, and have the luxury of watching these youngsters (along with Braden Holtby) fight it out to see just who inherits the crease.

Tending Your (Madison Square) Garden

We chuckle from time to time at Larry Brooks of the New York Post and the way he wears his fan's heart on his sleeve when he writes about the Rangers. But we read this morning's column by Brooks and thought it an accurate and thoughtful summary of what went on at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night, and more to the point, why it could happen.

We were especially taken with this commentary by Brooks:

"There was [Alex] Ovechkin (and there, and there!) and there were Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson. For the Rangers, well, they couldn't find a game-breaker, they couldn't find a difference maker."

It bears noting that all four Capitals mentioned by Brooks are home grown, all drafted by the Caps.  The Rangers' Marian Gaborik, to whom these players are compared (and Gaborik found wanting in the comparison), is the latest "talent" the Rangers chose to sign to a big free-agent deal, a contract they signed just as they got out from under the last one of that sort, a mega-deal with Scott Gomez that did not have the desired results.

The Rangers are doing better in terms of trying to forego the splashy signing in favor of drafting and growing their own talent.  Witness players like Derek Stepan (2008), Artem Anisimov (2006), Marc Staal and Michael Sauer (both in 2005), and Brandon Dubinsky (2004).  And that does not include the injured Ryan Callahan (2004).  But the Rangers have a large hole to climb out of when it comes to drafting high-end talent, having eschewed the home-grown route for so many years in favor of the newest "hot" thing in free agency.

One team tended their garden well, one did not.  It's not over, but which one is on the brink this morning?

Rookies

A doff of the prognosticatorial hat to Mike Vogel and this fine piece for making us wonder how the rookies were doing compared to their peers.  Not bad, as it turns out.  But you have to be impressed, too, with the ice time the Ranger rookies are getting.

(click the pic for a larger version)

Take on Five

Well, here we are. Just about where we thought we would be at this point in the opening round series against the New York Rangers. The Washington Capitals hold a three-games-to-one lead over the Blueshirts off their stirring 4-3 double-overtime win at Madison Square Garden on Wednesday night.

Now comes the hard part.

Any Capitals fan of any reasonable length of time recoils at the mention of the words, “Game Five.” For that Caps fan knows that many of the most spectacular collapses in team playoff history came when the Caps were but one game away from moving on with three chances to do so. And those Games 5 often were harbingers of agony to come.

The Capitals have held 3-1 leads in games nine times in team history and have a 2-7 record in those games. Frankly, it seems as if they have played more of them and, to the point, lost more of them. It all started way back in 1987. Caps fans might see the year and say, “yeah, sure…the four-overtime Game 7.” Well, the Caps had to play a Game 5 before they could experience that agony. In the 1987 opening round series against the New York Islanders, the Caps held a 3-1 lead in games heading into Game 5 on the strength of two consecutive wins – a 2-0 shutout and a 4-1 win, both on Long Island and both authored by goalie Bob Mason, who took over in goal for Pete Peeters. But Peeters got the call in Game 5. He started, but he did not finish. The Caps lost Game 5, 4-2, and would go on to lost Game 6, 5-4, on Long Island. Then they would lose the epic four-overtime Game 7 that ended on Easter morning on a ricochet off the post by Pat Lafontaine. The Caps’ Game 5 disasters started off with a bang, or more precisely, ended that series with a “clang.”

Three years later they would take a 3-1 lead into Game 5 in the second round matchup with the New York Rangers. This was the year of “Druce on the Loose,” and John Druce, the unlikely hero of the 1990 post-season for the Caps, already had three game-winning goals among the Caps seven wins heading into that Game 5 contest. With the chance to clinch this time, though, the Caps took advantage and ended the Rangers’ season in Game 5 at Madison Square Garden on an overtime goal by – who else – John Druce.

In 1992, however, the Caps found once more the secret to grabbing defeat from the jaws of victory. Having abused the Pittsburgh Penguins to the tune of 20 goals in the first four games of their opening round series (one of them another game-winner by Druce), the Caps went dry on offense in Game 5, able to muster only a pair of goals against Penguin goalie Tom Barrasso in a 5-2 loss in Landover. It was all the opening the Penguins needed, and they started their two decades worth of punishment of the Caps with 6-4 and 3-1 wins in Games 6 and 7 to close out the series.

The Caps got a measure of revenge two years later, despite some bad luck in Game 5 of their first-round series against Pittsburgh. Unlike their meeting in 1992, the first four games were close, more defensive affairs, although the Caps did post a 4-1 win in Game 4 to push the Pens to the brink of elimination. In a curious twist to this series, the three games the Caps won leading up to Game 5 were won by goalie Don Beaupre, while the only loss was suffered by Byron Dafoe. So, who got the call in Game 5? Dafoe. The Penguins won that contest, 3-2. Beaupre returned to the nets for Game 6, and this time the Caps ended the series with a dominating 6-3 win in Landover.

The next year these teams met again, for the fourth time in five post-seasons. The Penguins took home bragging rights once more, despite the Caps running out to that 3-1 lead in games. The hook here was that the Caps featured rookie Jim Carey in goal, who posted an 18-6-3 record (2.13, .913, four shutouts) in the regular season. He also allowed only 10 goals in the first four games against a powerful Penguin offense (the Pens scored an empty netter in a 5-3 win in Game 2). But in what would begin one of the most stunning falls from playoff grace ever suffered by a goaltender, Carey allowed a shorthanded goal by Jaromir Jagr with the Caps on a power play and holding a lead in Game 5. Carey could not stop the flood as the Pens rallied for a 6-5 overtime win, then won games 6 and 7 by 7-1 (a game in which the Caps would actually use three goaltenders – Carey, Dafoe, and Olaf Kolzig) and 3-0 scores.

In 1998 the Caps had three three-games-to-one leads on their way to the Stanley Cup finals. Oddly enough, the Caps lost two of them. In the first round the Caps let Boston pry their way back into the series with a 4-0 win over the Caps in Washington. But the Caps would clinch with a 3-2 overtime win in Boston in Game 6. In the second round the Caps did not allow Ottawa such an opportunity, as Olaf Kolzig followed up a 2-0 shutout win in Ottawa in Game 4 with a 3-0 whitewashing of the Senators in Game 5. In the Eastern Conference finals, the Caps dropped a 2-0 decision to Buffalo in Game 1, then rode the goaltending of Kolzig to three straight wins in Games 2-4, two of the wins coming in overtime. Despite the Caps allowing only 16 shots on goal in Game 5, the Sabres squeaked out a 2-1 win to extend the series. One more is all it took, though, as Joe Juneau scored the overtime goal in Buffalo to give the Caps a 3-2 win and send them to their only Cup final.

Twelve years would pass before a new generation of Caps fans could experience the horror of Game 5. That came in last year’s first round matchup with the Montreal Canadiens. After winning in overtime in Game 2, then utterly dominating the Habs in Games 3 and 4 (winning all three games by a combined 17-9 score), the Caps ran into the dreaded “hot goaltender.” Jaroslav Halak stopped 37 of 38 shots in a 2-1 win in Washington to deny the Caps the clincher. Halak would go on to stop 131 of 134 shots in Games 5-7 (.978 save percentage) to shock the Presidents Trophy-winning Caps out of the playoffs before they had barely begun.

So, what do we have in Games 5 when the Caps have that 3-1 lead in games?...

-- The Caps have taken a 3-1 lead in games into a Game 5 nine times.
-- They are 2-7 all time in those Games 5.
-- Six times the Caps have played that Game 5 on home ice…five times they lost. Three times after those losses the Caps went on to lose the series.
-- In three of the nine instances, the Caps played the Penguins, the most frequent opponent in such games. The Caps lost all three Games 5 against the Penguins with a 3-1 lead in games, but they did manage to capture one of the series, in 1994, the only time the Caps beat the Penguins in a playoff series.
-- The Caps faced the Rangers once in this situation, beating the Blueshirts in a 2-1 overtime decision in 1990 to advance to the Wales Conference finals.
-- The Caps have averaged only two goals a game (18 total goals) in the nine Games 5, nine of them in three games against the Penguins (nine in the other six games against other opponents). Beware holding those sticks too tight.
- They have allowed three goals a game (27 total) in those Games 5, but 14 of them came in three games against the Penguins (13 allowed in six games against other opponents).

Game 5 has not been kind to the Capitals. But if there is a silver lining in all of this for the Caps, it is this. Most of the horror that has been Game 5 is a product of games against Pittsburgh. In the six other Game 5 played by the Caps, they do have two wins (hey, it’s something), and they have managed to win four of those series in the end (although three of them came in their 1998 Stanley Cup finals run). And there is this -- the Rangers have never recovered from a 1-3 deficit in games in a playoff series. The Caps need to end this…

…now.

Thursday, April 21, 2011

In Living Color


Washington Post style...

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Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 4: Capitals 4 - Rangers 3 (2OT)

Admit it, Caps fans… after 40 minutes, you were polishing your expletives to describe another collapse by the Caps. It took the New York Rangers less than 34 minutes to stick the Washington Capitals in a 3-0 hole behind goals by Artem Anisimov, Marian Gaborik, and Brandon Dubinsky. You could almost see the whole season unraveling before your eyes… the “defense-first” philosophy being ripped to shreds by a team that had scored three real hockey goals in consecutive games for the first time in more than a month, the end of the Michal Neuvirth run in goal for the Caps, another chapter in Alex Ovechkin’s journal of post-season frustration, and another two-game lead squandered by a team that holds several patents on the method.

Then… it was the Rangers’ turn to make mistakes. Rookie defenseman Ryan McDonagh looked as if he did not know what to do with the puck behind his own net in the third minute of the third period, and when he finally made a decision, it was the wrong one. He shot the puck toward the left wing boards, where the puck was intercepted by Alexander Semin. The Caps forward stepped down into a shooting area and fired the puck on goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who slowed, but did not stop the puck. He took a couple of swipes at the biscuit with his glove along the goal line trying for a stoppage, but missed with each swipe. The puck settled next to his pad at the near post, and Semin jabbed his stick into the opening to nudge the puck the last six inches across the goal line.

If that goal was a spark, Marcus Johansson lit the flame. Fifty-seven seconds after Semin’s goal, Johansson converted a cross-ice feed from Brooks Laich, backhanding the puck into the net from the far post past Lundquvist. Then, eight minutes and change later it was Johansson again, without the need of his stick, having a shot by John Carlson from the left point strike him in the chest and deflect past Lundqvist to tie the game.

Forty minutes later, in the second overtime, the Caps got a gift. Jason Chimera skated down the left wing into the Ranger zone and got tangled up with defenseman Bryan McCabe. The puck squirted toward the Ranger net, where Lunqvist looked to be in position to move the puck aside or cover it. But Marian Gaborik, who was backchecking on the play, took a one-handed whack at the puck to try to move it out of harm’s way. All he succeeded in doing was hitting Chimera in the pants with it. The puck dropped behind Lundqvist inches from the goal, and with McCabe having lost Chimera in the wash, the Caps forward had only to bunt the puck the last foot to complete the comeback and give the Caps a 4-3 win and a three-games-to-one lead in the series.

Other stuff…

-- That’s 29-1-0 now. The Rangers came into this game with a 29-0-0 record when leading after two periods of play this season. They picked one helluva time for their first loss in such situations.

-- That comeback by the Caps was and remains the only time so far in this post-season (in 19 such games) that a team trailing at the second intermission came back to win the game.

-- Don’t look now, but that is six goals in the last 16 games for Marcus Johansson. Might not sound like much, but it is a 31-goal pace over 82 games.

-- Lost in this win is the good news/bad news aspect of special teams, particularly the penalty killers. The good news is that the Caps killed off all seven Ranger power plays, making the PK 17-for-18 so far in the series (94.4 percent). The bad news is that this is two games in a row where the Rangers got seven power plays.

-- You knew…you just KNEW that the Caps were going to lose this game when they took a too-many-men-on-the-ice call five minutes into the second overtime. Shades of Jason Doig! But the Rangers, alas, do not have Martin St. Louis. They did not muster as much as a single shot on goal in that last power play, and they had only four shots for the game on the seven power plays they had. The story of this game is the PK as much as the comeback.

-- Michal Neuvirth did not look sharp early, giving up three goals on the first 16 shots he faced. But he stopped the last 23 to finish the game. You would like to see more consistency in his game, but right now he is tied for second in goals against average among playoff goalies (1.45) and is fourth in save percentage (.942). He does seem to have this discomforting Jekyll and Hyde thing going on with respect to home and road games, though. Good thing Saturday’s game is at Verizon Center, eh?

-- Every single Cap registered a hit in this game, save one – Marcus Johansson. Only Derek Stepan failed to register one for the Rangers. The official scorer must have had his finger stuck on the hit counter – 120 hits combined for both teams, the Rangers credited with 69 of them. Brian Boyle was given credit for ten for the Blueshirts, and Matt Bradley had seven in barely ten minutes of ice time for the Caps.

-- An odd game in terms of time management for the Rangers. The trio of forwards Chris Drury, Erik Christensen, and Wojtek Wolski all skated less than 16 minutes in this game (Christensen fewer than 13 and Wolski fewer than ten), but they skated more or less regular shifts deep in the overtimes. Given that they weren’t being trusted with minutes during the body of regulation time, what could be expected of them in OT except to run off minutes to give the nine forwards who were getting minutes a breather?

-- You might make the same case for the Capitals with Matt Bradley getting barely ten minutes for the game and Matt Hendricks only 13. But with the Caps trying to dig out of a 3-0 hole, they needed more offense on the ice than these guys were likely to provide. Bradley skated one shift in the third period and Hendricks only three.

-- The Caps held the Rangers to 72 shot attempts in more than 92 minutes of play (they had 103 of their own).

-- We wonder a bit about Nicklas Backstrom’s health. He did have five shots last night (more than doubling his total for the series), but he has only one assist in the series and hasn’t had a goal since March 22nd (12 straight games, and counting). Is the hand bothering him?

-- Kudos to Mike Green. He has taken a beating in this series, but last night he had an assist (he is tied for the team points lead with Alex Ovechkin) and skated almost 34 minutes without being on the ice for any Ranger goals.

-- Speaking of being on the ice for Ranger goals, the Carlson/Alzner duo were on for all three Ranger tallies. But after that, John Carlson and Karl Alzner were rock solid. Mistakes are one thing, picking oneself up and dusting oneself off to do better is another. It was fitting that each got an assist on the game-tying goal in the third period.

In the end, this is not over. Caps fans know better. But this is where the Caps should be in this series, with a three-games-to-one lead. How they got here is at least as important as the fact that they are here. A comeback from a 3-0 deficit in the last 20 minutes against a team that did not surrender a second-intermission lead all season has to be inspiring, especially since one of their most productive players down the stretch – Mike Knuble – had to sit this one out. And it should not escape notice that the game-winning goal by Jason Chimera was scored in Knublesque fashion, by driving to the net and picking up loose change.

And don’t forget Marcus Johansson, who scored his goals by: a) going to the net and being there for the feed from Brooks Laich, and b) going to the net and getting himself in a position to have a puck bounce off a body part for a goal. The four goals the Caps scored might not have traveled a total of 30 feet (unless you count the distance in the Carlson slapper that bounced off Johansson for the third goal).

But now the serious work of closing a team out awaits. It is fitting that we are right where we were a year ago, with that 3-1 lead in games and a team that might be reeling after a tough loss on their home ice (last year, Montreal lost both Games 3 and 4 on home ice). Have the Caps learned their lessons? Can they “stay angry?”

Hey...as long as they win 'em one game at a time, 13 more times.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Curse of Seven Games

In 1987 the NHL changed its playoff format from a best-of-five series in the first round to a best-of-seven series. Twenty-three seasons have passed since the change in format, and a stroll down History Lane might help pass the time for Caps fans as we gear up for Game 5 in this best-of-seven opening round against the Rangers. The topic for today’s reading is “do Stanley Cup-winning teams often have to deal with seven-game opening round series?”  Well, let's look at the history.

The Early Years – “The Fear of God”

In 1987, in the first year of the new opening round format, the Edmonton Oilers dropped the first game in their opening round series against the Los Angeles Kings. It did not have the desired effect on the Oilers, at least if you were a Kings fan. The Oilers proceeded to annihilate the Kings in Game 2 by a 13-3 score and won the last four games of the series by an aggregate score of 30-15, taking down the Kings in five games.

Edmonton duplicated the five-game feat in the opening round in 1988, defeating the Winnipeg Jets, on their way to another Stanley Cup. But over the next four seasons – from 1989 through 1992 – Stanley Cup winners would have the fear of God put into them in the opening round.

In 1989 the Calgary Flames would almost give away a three-to-one lead in games over the Vancouver Canucks before squeaking out a 4-3 series clinching win in Game 7.

In 1990, it would be quite a different path the Edmonton Oilers took in the first round on their way to a fifth Stanley Cup. They fell behind three-games-to-one to the Winnipeg Jets, looking to avenge their first round defeat at the hands of the Oilers in 1988. But the Oilers stormed back to win Games 5-7 (if one-goal wins in Games 5 and 6 could be called “storming,” before winning by a 4-1 margin in Game 7).

In 1991, the Pittsburgh Penguins would win the first of their consecutive Stanley Cups, and they would experience the first of consecutive seven-game series on their way to those championships. It was the New Jersey Devils that took them to the limit in the opening round this time, the teams exchanging wins over the course of the series, Pittsburgh winning the odd-numbered games and the Devils the even-numbered ones. In 1992 the Penguins repeated the feat, this time at the expense of the Washington Capitals, not only overcoming a 3-1 deficit in games, but coming back from being plastered in Game 4 by a 7-2 margin on home ice. Although the series was close, the games were not. There wasn’t a one-goal game in the bunch in that series.

The 1992 seven-game series represented the last time since the seven-game opening round format was started that an eventual Stanley Cup winner was extended to seven games in the opening round, which brings us to…

Dead Puck, Meet Broom

After the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Quebec Nordiques in a tough (three games settled in overtime) six-game series in the opening round of the 1993 Stanley Cup playoffs before winning their Cup, the New York Rangers would start something of a trend the following year. In 1994 the Rangers made short work of the New York Islanders, winning the opening round series in a four-game sweep, outscoring the Islanders by an aggregate 22-3 score, with two shutouts.

There would be no sweeps in any of the next four years, nor would any series go to seven games. But in 1999, 2000, and 2001, the opening round . In 1999, the Dallas Stars knocked off Edmonton in four games that might have been the epitome of the dead puck era. The teams combined for 18 goals in four games (Dallas getting 11 of them), and in no game did either team register more than three goals.

In 2000, the New Jersey Devils swept the Florida Panthers in four games in a slightly higher scoring series – the teams combined for 18 goals (the same as the previous year), but at least one team (the Devils in Games 1 and 4) scored four goals.

In 2001, the Colorado Avalanche defeated the Vancouver Canucks, 4-0, on their way to a Stanley Cup. It was nip-and-tuck for awhile, the Avalanche recording one-goal wins in Games 1-3. But facing a 0-3 deficit, the Canucks bowed by a 5-1 margin in Game 4. The 2001 opening round sweep was the last time an eventual Stanley Cup winner won in four straight in the opening round.

Why “Six” Is Better Than “Seven”

Over the last eight seasons, “six” has been the number of choice for Stanley Cup winners in the opening round. Five times in eight seasons, including the past three, the eventual champion has eliminated their opening round opponent in six games.

2002 was the first year in this stretch in which the eventual champ closed out a series in six games. The Detroit Red Wings did the trick, beating Vancouver in the Games 3-6 after dropping the first pair of contests at Joe Louis Arena.

In 2003 and 2004, both the Devils and the Tampa Bay Lightning eliminated their opponents in five games, the Devils over the Bruins (after skating out to a 3-0 lead in games) and the Lightning over the Islanders (shutting out the Isles three times in the process). But in 2006, in the first playoff after the lockout, the opening round once more required a sixth game to settle things. The Carolina Hurricanes won the last four games of the series against the Montreal Canadiens, each by one goal (twice in overtime, including the series-clinching game) after falling behind two games to none at home.

In 2007 the Anaheim Ducks would win the last five-game opening round series to date, dispatching the Minnesota Wild after taking the first three games, then dropping Game 4.

In 2008 the Red Wings won their most recent Stanley Cup and started on their way with a six-game win over the Nashville Predators in the opening round. After splitting the first four games of that series, each team winning a pair on home ice, Game 5 appeared to be the pivotal matchup, the Red Wings taking a one-goal decision over the Predators before wrapping things up in Nashville with a 3-0 shutout.

The Pittsburgh Penguins won their third Cup in 2009, and they got off to a good start in the opening round with a six-game win over their cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. It was a case of the team with the 3-1 lead in games (the Penguins) not wanting to let things get to a Game 7 after dropping Game 5 (a 3-0 Flyer win in Pittsburgh). The Penguins closed things out on the road with a 5-3 win.

Last season, the Chicago Blackhawks started their march to a Stanley Cup with the third straight six-game opening round series for the eventual Cup winner. It was the Predators once more serving as the opponent, the second time in three seasons they would fall in six games in the opening round to the eventual champions. After splitting the first four games, Chicago took a one-goal decision in Game 5 before ending the series in a 5-3 win in Nashville in Game 6.

So there you have it. Twenty-three seasons of best-of-seven formats in the opening round. What we can tell from the history is that any thoughts Caps fans might have had of a sweep over the Rangers was ill-placed. There has not been an opening round sweep by the eventual Cup champs in the last eight playoff seasons. In fact, of the eight opening round series this season, only Detroit is poised to sweep their series, holding a 3-0 lead over the Phoenix Coyotes.

And if you are thinking the Caps might get by with a seven-game win over the Rangers, that is likely to be of small and short comfort. No Stanley Cup champion has opened with a seven-game series win since 1992, a run of 17 straight seasons.

“Must win” games are, by definition, “elimination games.” Those are the only ones a team “must” win, because if they do not, their season is over. But if the Caps do not win this evening, you would have to say that they have to win Game 5 to have, in addition to an advantage in this series against the Rangers, a reasonable chance to win a Stanley Cup. Teams that are dragged through seven games in the opening round just don’t win Cups. That has been the history over almost two decades of Stanley Cup playoffs. Sure, history can be made, as the NHL ads tell us, but it would not be the way to bet. The Caps need to end this thing.

Soon.