Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, Game 4: Caps vs. Rangers

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

You would have been hard-pressed to find anyone who thought the Washington Capitals would sweep the New York Rangers in the their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup, but now that the Caps have lost a game in this series, Caps fans are getting antsy. Is this a mere hiccup on the way to the next round, or are we seeing the next agonizing installment of “The Washington Capitals: A Study in the Gag Reflex?”

You will have to forgive Caps fans if they seem a bit pessimistic about the boys’ chances in this series, despite taking a two games to one lead into tonight’s game at Madison Square Garden. But truth be told, the Caps are in relatively unknown territory here. The Caps have played in 28 best-of-seven series in franchise history, and in only five of them did they win their first two games. Before we go any further, it is worth noting that the Caps have never swept a best-of-seven series. Never. So there isn’t anything new in regard to an opponent winning a game in a seven-game playoff series. Get over it.

OK, so, about those five best-of-sevens in which they won their first two games. In only three of them did those two wins come at home: in 1992 against Pittsburgh, in 1998 against Ottawa, and in 2009 against Pittsburgh once more. The 1992 series against Pittsburgh might not provide much in the way of historical insight. Even though the Caps finished the 1991-1992 season ahead of the Penguins in the standings, the Penguins were the defending Stanley Cup champions (they would go on to win a second straight Cup in 1992). But those last two series. Hmm….

In 1998 the Caps won their opening series against the Boston Bruins and prepared to meet the Ottawa Senators in the second round. The Senators were the proverbial team “no one wanted to play” in the playoffs, having closed the 1997-1998 season with an 11-5-5 record (there being five ties, not overtime losses). Then the Senators dispatched the New Jersey Devils – the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference – in six games in the first round. Despite the Senators’ finish in the standings (fifth in the Northeast Division, eighth in the Eastern Conference), they were not necessarily – as the Devils found out – a team anyone would want to face in the playoffs.

The Caps shook off the Senators’ challenge early in the second round, bolting out to a 2-0 lead in games on the basis of a 4-2 win in Game 1 and a 6-2 decision in Game 2. Back to Ottawa the teams went, and the Senators got one back when Daniel Alfredsson scored a hat trick in a 4-3 win. But that was all the fun Ottawa would have in that series, as the Caps shut the door – slammed it, actually – with 2-0 and 3-0 shutouts behind goalie Olaf Kolzig in Games 4 and 5 to close out the series. The Caps would go on to beat the Buffalo Sabres in the Eastern Conference final to reach their first, and only Stanley Cup final.

The 2009 instance was less pleasant. After outlasting the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, the Caps won Games 1 and 2 of their conference semifinal matchup against the Pittsburgh Penguins, each by one-goal margins. But in Game 3, the Penguins turned the tables with a 3-2 overtime win. Although the Caps scored late – a goal by Nicklas Backstrom with 1:50 remaining in regulation – to send the game into overtime, it might have been looked at as an opportunity lost to pin the Penguins in a 3-0 hole. The Caps still had that two games to one lead, though, and had an opportunity to push the Pens to the brink with a win and a return to Verizon Center for Game 5. But the Penguins won Game 4 by a 5-3 margin and stole momentum away from the Capitals, momentum that helped propel them to a 4-3 overtime win in Washington in Game 5. The Caps won Game 6 in Pittsburgh – the third overtime game in the last four games played in that series – to force a Game 7 in Washington, a game that needs no recapping here given the unpleasant memories of the result.

So here we are, the Capitals once more staking themselves to an early lead with two wins at home. They did not capitalize on the momentum of such wins, the Rangers scoring late in Game 3 to escape a 3-0 hole in games with a 3-2 win. Whether that result is a mere bump in the road on the way to a deep playoff run, or whether the Caps let the Rangers off the hook to make this a long nail-biter of a series, depends on what transpires tonight in Game 4. There is little history to guide us, but enough to paint a picture of different roads the Caps might find themselves on with the outcome.

And if history is a guide, it might suggest that the outcome might rest on the young shoulders of the Capitals’ rookie goaltender, Michal Neuvirth. In 1998, 27-year old Olaf Kolzig, in his first full season as the Caps number one netminder, was the one slamming that door on the Senators in Games 4 and 5 to win the series for the Caps, four games to one. In 2009, 21-year old Semyon Varlamov allowed five goals on 28 shots in game 4 against Pittsburgh, then wilted under the incessant barrage of shots fired at him by the Penguins over the last three games of the series (12 goals allowed on the last 102 shots he faced in those three games).

In this series the Caps did a good job of protecting Neuvirth in terms of shots faced in games 1 and 2 (47 shots overall, only one goal allowed). But the Rangers peppered the 23-year old with 35 shots in Game 3 in Madison Square Garden, three of which eluded Neuvirth. The Caps have to do a better job of preventing shots, and Neuvirth needs to stop the ones he does face – a rather elementary conclusion to be sure. But it is on that simple maxim – preventing shots in the first place and stopping the ones that get through – upon which this game and this series might turn. 

And we're going to find out if this is an attitude, or just a shirt...

Caps 3 – Rangers 2


Jeremy said...

Excellent preview. Thank you. I'd add that I think tonight is a career bell for Alex Ovechkin: one he answers or doesn't.

Generational players answer BIG bells in their careers and, to date, despite how much as I love him as a fan, Ovechkin hasn't answered enough of his Career Bells. Like his coach (and the team's owner), there’s often more talk than there is anything else.

In game 2, Ovechkin had a chance with about ten minutes left in the third period to make a 2-0 game a 3-0 laugher. His breakaway on Lundquist was more or less a flashy muff, and the rest of the game an energy-zapping affair for the Caps. NY gained momentum while playing hard through a tough 2-0 loss. True, on Ovehckin’s 3rd period breakaway, there was a genuine all-star opponent in goal. Also true: Ovechkin too often doesn't advantage his chances to make things easier on his team. Had he scored, and the Caps won 3-0, who knows how a demoralized NY team might have approached game 3? We can never know, of course, but we do know this: very few Capitals players were happy with how game 2 ended. And this: Ovechkin was a defensive liability in game 3 when a motivated (rather than a demoralized) NY team took it to the Caps with 35 shots on goal.

So, here we are tonight: in my mind, a BIG career bell for Ovechkin. Will he answer? Or, will he flair and flash, make noise ... and peter out?

It's often said a player is a reflection of his coach. BB had a long career that one can summarize as such: tremendous offensive potential and flair that consistently failed to reach its full potential, much less the highest level for a player with his natural talent and skill -- success in the NHL. The biggest reason for his limited success BB admits (and, admirably owns) in his autobiography: too often, he nodded off, got lost in his over-blown sense of self, and he was just a little lazy...

Sound familiar? Too often this year Ovechkin has been less OVECHKIN and more FLOATVECHKIN – just a little lazy.

During Ovechkin’s years in the NHL, there's been a lot of room (especially in Washington) for excuses. "He's a generational talent, a unique player"... and, certainly, there's no argument there. But: is he a Gretzy or a BB? Ovechkin is no rookie anymore. He's had his years to learn and stumble. Make no mistakes nor excuses: Ovechkin was what he was in game 3: a defensive liability. Moreover, game 3 could have, potentially, been much easier for his team had he closed the deal in game 2. Gretzy would have.

Good players do that. True generational players. Ovechkin is or he isn't. I think tonight's a BIG bell for him.

Anonymous said...

Jeremy, I agree. At this point, Ovi has not answered the Career Bells that he has had.

Thing is even if he does answer the Career Bell tonight, it's only one Bell. He has had too many chances in the past (and a few this year line in Game 2) and failed. Therefore, answering tonight will only be a step in the right direction... a huge step... but not something that says "Ovi has turned the corner".

They're playing the Rangers. The Caps are the better team no doubt. The Rangers are Lundqvist AND THAT'S IT.

Ovi better answer the bell tonight and his team had better follow, or it will be pandemonium in DC yet again... and possibly another early exit in the Tourney.

In my opinion, tonight is the biggest game in BB's career as a coach, Ovi's career as a Cap, and GMGM's career as a GM. All this off-season talk about knowing how to play in the postseason, staying angry, etc. comes to a head tonight. Win, and take care of business on Saturday and you gain some swagger. Lose, and maybe still win the series in 6 or 7 and, to me, things have not changed from last year. BIG GAME TONIGHT. GO CAPS!

The Peerless said...

I absolutely agree on Ovechkin. The clock is ticking very loudly on his career in context of his ability to lead this team to a Cup. The great ones -- Gretzky, Orr, Lemieux, Howe, Richard -- all won their first Cups at Ovechkin's age or younger (Lemieux was the oldest of that group at 25).

Once upon a time, not too long ago, folks talked of Ovechkin winning "Cups" -- plural. If he comes up empty again, his winning any diminishes considerably in my opinion. If the Caps go one and done, I think the front office is going to have a long summer thinking about whether it has the "it" factor to win as currently constituted.