Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Pennsylvania Parallel

The Caps, as all Caps fans know, changed coaches in late November, swapping out Bruce Boudreau for Dale Hunter.  And immediately, thoughts turned to another coaching change made in mid-season not too long ago.  The Pittsburgh Penguins relieved Michel Therrien in mid-season during the 2008-2009 campaign in favor of Dan Bylsma, won just about every game they played thereafter in the regular season, then went on to win the Stanley Cup.

Folks might have thought this would be the way it would go for the Caps. Well, not so fast.  The Caps under Hunter are a middling 5-6-1 and going nowhere in a big hurry in the Eastern Conference of the NHL.  So much for that comparison, at least so far.

But perhaps it is a case of "right state, wrong city" when it comes to comparisons.  Forward to the 2009-2010 season.  Another team got off to a good start, winning their first three games (the Caps won their first seven this season), then puttered around the .500 mark for the next 20 games or so.  The team's management saw enough to know that a change was needed behind the bench and brought in a coach that had no experience in his new team's organization. 

It took a while for the new coach and his new team to get on the same page.  He and his team were pasted in their first outing together, taking an 8-2 drubbing at the hands of the Capitals.  The team was 2-7-1 under their new coach and looked ugly doing it, failing to score more than two goals in any of their eight losses under the new regime.

But the coach and his players found the same page, got their skates under them, and won the last four games of the 2009 portion of the season, averaging more than four goals a game in doing so.  It was a team that wouldn't rocket to the top of the standings in the 2010 portion of the season, though.  In fact, they went only 22-17-4 after the calendar turned over and played to an under .500 record over their last 20 games (8-9-3).

It was a team that made the playoffs by the thinest of margins -- by winning a shootout in their 82nd game against the team that would have gone in their place had that other team prevailed.  But win by that margin they did.  They would go on to sandwich a pair of five-game playoff series wins around perhaps the most improbable playoff series comeback in NHL history.  After dropping their first three games, then coming back to tie the series at three games apiece only to go down by a 3-0 score in Game 7, the team roared back with four unanswered goals against one of the best goaltenders of this generation to advance to the Eastern Conference finals.  The team went on to the Stanley Cup finals, where they finally fell short.  But it was an amazing ride for that team, their new coach, and their rabid fans. 

The Caps have not found magic in a bottle (yet) and seem likely to struggle to get and keep a hold on one of the slots in the bottom half of the playoff seedings.  But in taking this path, perhaps the analogy one is searching for isn't Dan Bylsma and the Pittsburgh Penguins (Bylsma was promoted from within the Penguins' system), but rather Peter Laviolette and the 2009-2010 Philadelphia Flyers.

(a doff of the cap to The Washington Times' Ted Starkey, as well as J.P. and the contributors at Japers' Rink who reminded us where the Flyers were this time in 2009).

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 10: "The Streak"

There were no HBO cameras around to chronicle this one. No clips of players with vacant stares contemplating the latest loss, no pose with a coach’s head in his hands, no behind-the-closed-door exhortation to “grab some sack” that accompanied the eight-game losing streak in the 2010 portion of the 2010-2011 season.

When the Washington Capitals embarked on a nine-game winning streak from February 26th through March 15th, it did not even start in a fashion that would have hinted at almost three weeks of unbroken success. In fact, it started with a blowout. Against the Rangers.


Perhaps the low point of the Capitals regular season was captured by HBO in their 24/7 series covering the run-up to the Winter Classic on January 1st. That low point happened to be a 7-0 loss to the New York Rangers in Madison Square Garden in which the Caps were reduced to pylons for a Rangers’ skating and shooting drill, and the Captain – Alex Ovechkin – finally had his own frustration boil over in a fight against the Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky.

And it happened again in late February. The Capitals took the ice at Verizon Center after a 13-day road trip and had their lunches eaten in front of them by the Rangers, who pulverized the Caps, 6-0. It was made worse by the fact that defenseman Mike Green, who had missed five games with a concussion and the flu, skated two shifts and 2:25 before being driven into the boards by Derek Stepan in what would be his final regular season game of the 2010-2011 season.

One would not have thought that such a game would signal a reversal of fortune of the sort that the Caps would enjoy for the next three weeks. And making it worse was that the Caps had to visit Long Island the following night to take on the New York Islanders.

That game had all the hallmarks of another uninspired effort in a late February game that folks would forget by the middle of the following week. And when the Islanders took a 1-0 lead on a goal by Kyle Okposo in the first period, it looked as if the Caps would give back another two points after a 3-2-0 road trip in which they played quite well.

It got worse. Travis Hamonic scored a goal 33 seconds into the second period when John Carlson tried to glove down Hamonic’s floater from the point and only managed to deflect the shot down and around the stick of goalie Michal Neuvirth. There was a breakaway by Frans Nielsen less than four minutes into the period that he shot wide. There was Michael Grabner with nothing but an open net to shoot at from the bottom of the right wing circle to Neuvirth’s left barely four minutes into the period that he could not convert. There was John Taveares getting a good look on a power play from the right wing circle, but his wrist shot was gloved down by Neuvirth.

The Caps were lucky to be behind only 2-0 at that point. The inability of the Islanders to pad that lead came back to haunt them mid-way through the period. The Islanders turned the puck over at center ice, and John Carlson fed it across to Brooks Laich at the Islander blue line. Laich stepped around Hamonic and curled to the net where he wristed the puck past goalie Al Montoya to halve the lead.

If nothing else, it stopped the momentum – that of the Islanders, who got out to that early lead, and that of the Caps, who were in a five-period funk at that point. Laich made things happen again early in the third period when he took the puck from Marcus Johansson and curled through the right wing circle toward the Islander net. With defenseman Ty Wishart trying to tie him up, the puck slid across the crease to Mike Knuble with an open net to shoot at. Josh Bailey could not get to Knuble in time to prevent a backhander from finding the back of the net, and the game was tied.

Barely three minutes later, Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin were rushing into the Islander zone. Ovechkin left the puck for Semin at the Islander line, and it was all Semin from there. He took the puck to the middle of the ice, and using Hamonic as a screen fired the puck low and off the post to Montoya’s left for what would be the game-winner. Not that the game would not be without its moments thereafter. Not least among them was a 55-second sequence in the game’s dying moments in which the Islanders attempted five shots on goal. All of them were blocked (two by Boyd Gordon, two by Jeff Schultz, and one by Scott Hannan) to seal the win.

From there, the Capitals would refine their ability to come from behind and come out ahead in one-goal decisions. They beat those same Islanders three days later at Verizon Center, 2-1. With 48 seconds left Brooks Laich took a feed from just-acquired Jason Arnott to score the tying goal (it was Arnott’s first game with the Caps). Then, it was Alex Ovechkin getting the game winner 1:55 into overtime by darting between two Islanders and backhanding the puck past goalie Nathan Larson for thei Caps’ second straight win.

Arnott would figure heavily in the Caps’ third win in a row, scoring the game-winner 14:41 into the third period of a 3-2 home win over the St. Louis Blues, a game that featured the Caps twice coming back from one-goal deficits and defenseman Scott Hannan’s first goal as a Cap.

The Caps made it four in a row and four one-goal wins in a row with a 3-2 win in Florida against the Panthers that lifted them into first place in the Southeast Division over the Tampa Bay Lightning.

Game 5 in the streak featured another one-goal decision and another come-from-behind win, this time a 2-1 Gimmick victory over the Lightning. It could have been a disaster for the Caps when Michal Neuvirth took a shot off his mask in the first period that dislodged some metal that found its way into his eye. Neuvirth finished the period, but Braden Holtby took over from there, stopping all 21 shots he saw in the second and third periods, and overtime. Then he stopped all three shots he saw in the trick shot phase of the contest. Meanwhile, Alexander Semin got the game-tying goal by rifling another shot off a post and in with just over five minutes left in regulation. After both teams had several chances in the overtime to ice things, it was Alex Ovechkin getting the only goal in the Gimmick to give the Caps their fifth straight win.

The Caps finally got a laugher of sorts by sticking a five-spot on the Edmonton Oilers in a 5-0 win that saw a number of milestones reached for the Caps. First, Braden Holtby recorded his first NHL shutout, stopping all 22 shots he faced. Second, Alex Ovechkin recorded a pair of goals to enable him to top the 600-point mark in his career. Jason Arnott recorded his 900th career point, assisting on Ovechkin’s first goal of the contest 5:38 into the second period. It happened to be Ovechkin’s first power play goal at Verizon Center for the season. Dennis Wideman notched his 200th career point on a third period goal by Alexander Semin. In between, Eric Fehr recorded a pair of goals in his first game back after missing 22 games to a shoulder injury. And Marco Sturm – acquired via waivers from Los Angeles – recorded his first point for Washington with an assist on the Semin goal.

It was back to one-goal decisions after that, though. The Caps defeated Carolina, 2-1, in yet another come-from-behind win. After Carolina scored with 36 seconds left in the second period, the Caps came back with a pair in the third – Alex Ovechkin’s 28th goal of the season just 47 seconds into the period and Matt Hendricks getting what would be the game-winner at 7:24. Braden Holtby recorded his third win in a row in goal, stopping 40 of 41 shots, including 16 in the third period to preserve the win. Since replacing Neuvirth against Tampa Bay, Holtby was on a run of stopping 83 of 84 shots over eight periods (.988 save percentage).

Game 8 in the streak was, you guessed it, another come-from-behind one-goal win. The eighth victim in the streak was the Chicago Blackhawks. After Chicago got the first goal – a Nick Leddy slap shot 4:46 into the game – the Caps’ special teams went to work. Boyd Gordon got the Caps even with a shorthanded goal 85 seconds after Leddy’s tally, and Jason Arnott put the Caps ahead with a power play goal in the final minute of the first period. The teams traded goals after that – a Tomas Kopecky goal to tie things in the second period and a Brooks Laich goal in the seventh minute of the third to put the Caps back out in front. But Marcus Johansson was sent off for hooking with 1:50 left in the contest, and with the goalie pulled to create a 6-on-4 situation, Jonathan Toews tied it with 39 seconds left. In overtime the Caps had pressure on the Blackhawks as the clock ticked toward one minute remaining. With Marcus Johansson controlling the puck above the left wing circle, Mike Knuble laid his stick out calling for the puck from in front of goalie Corey Crawford. Johansson laid the puck on Knuble’s tape, and it was Knuble from there. He pulled the puck across the crease with Crawford down and stuffed the puck under his pads amidst a clot of players to give the Caps the 4-3 overtime win.

In Game 9 the Caps headed off to Montreal for a contest that had to have folks thinking about the end of the streak. The Caps were without centers Jason Arnott and Nicklas Backstrom. Defenseman Mike Green was still on the shelf. Defenseman Tom Poti and goalie Semyon Varlamov were also out. But the Caps parlayed a two-goal effort from Marcus Johansson and a 24-save performance from Braden Holtby into a 4-2 win over the similarly decimated-by-injury Canadiens.

There would be no “Game 10” of the streak. The Caps lost at Detroit to the Red Wings, 4-2, on March 16th to end the winning streak at nine. It was, however, the beginning of a mad rush to the end of the year that saw the Caps go 16-3-1 in their last 20 games to finish first overall in the Eastern Conference for the second consecutive season. The nine-game streak was noteworthy for other things as well, including:

- The Caps were 5-0-0 at home, 4-0-0 on the road
- Eight of the nine games were decided by one goal
- Only once did the Caps score more than four goals in the streak
- Only once did the Caps allow more than two goals in the streak
- Three games were won in overtime; there were three different goal-scorers (Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Knuble)
- Three Caps had two game-winning goals in the streak (Ovechkin, Semin, and Knuble)
- Three Caps had four goals apiece to lead the team (Brooks Laich, Semin, and Ovechkin)
- Seventeen different Caps recorded points, including goaltender Braden Holtby; 11 different Caps had goals
- Ovechkin led all Caps in points (4-8-12)
- The Caps allowed the first goal in seven of the nine games (one of the other two being a Caps shutout)
- The Caps outscored their opponents, 27-14, over the nine-game streak. Six of the 14 goals were allowed in the first period of games. They allowed only two third-period goals in the streak (Florida, Chicago)
- Michal Neuvirth was 4-0-0, 1.83, .938 during the streak; Braden Holtby was 5-0-0, 1.25, .957, with one shutout during the streak
- The Caps won at least one game on every day of the week, and twice on Sunday (twice on Tuesday, too)
- It was the tenth winning streak of at least five games by the Caps since the seven-game streak to end the 2007-2008 season.

In the end, though, it was another case of the Caps perhaps hitting their peak much too early. And with so many one-goal wins coming in that streak, one had to wonder in retrospect if it wasn’t a flukish mirage, an anomaly where all the one-goal margins happen to fall to the good guys. In fact, the Caps would not win another one-goal game in regulation time the rest of the season and would go 4-3 in all one goal decisions over their last 11 games (all the wins coming in extra time and one of the losses coming that way). They would go only 2-3 in one-goal decisions in the playoffs, including a pair of one-goal losses in the second round sweep the Caps suffered at the hands of Tampa Bay.

Like so many things with this franchise over the years, it was one of those things that was nice while it lasted, but it neither lasted long enough, nor did it come at the right time of year. And that is why while it was among the ten top stories of 2011, it was not as big a story as a long winning streak might suggest.