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