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.


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