Friday, January 13, 2012

Top Ten Stories of 2011 -- Number 1: "Same Story, Different Year"

We come to the end of the top ten stories of 2011, one that has been repeated with too much frequency in the history of this franchise and one that looms over it still as the race for the playoffs in 2012 unfolds.

In 35 seasons prior to the 2010-2011 season, the Washington Capitals qualified for the post season 21 times. In those 21 playoff years, the Caps advanced past the first round eight times. They advanced past the second round twice. They advanced to the Stanley Cup final once. The post season has been a place littered with disappointments for the Capitals and their fans, none more disappointing than their agonizing first round exit from the playoffs in 2010 as the league’s Presidents’ Trophy winner.

2011 was supposed to be different. The Caps were no longer the too-young and too-inexperienced squad that lost to the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008. They were not the club that came up short in a Game 7 in the second round to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2009. And they certainly were not the team that succumbed to the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 playoffs after taking a 3-1 lead in games in that series.

No, the Caps were a team with elite talent entering their prime, their experience tempered by the disappointment of losing when many felt they should have won. They were a team that had been taught lessons and that had learned them well. They were, as Eastern Conference winners for a second consecutive year, primed for a long run at a Stanley Cup.

But what they were not, was healthy. Nicklas Backstrom sustained what appeared to be a hand injury when he was slashed in a game against Pittsburgh on February 21st. It certainly did seem to be a turning point in his season. To that point, Backstrom was 15-39-54 in 60 games (a 20-53-77 pace). Including that game, Backstrom was 3-9-12 in his last 17 games (a 14-43-57 pace).

Then there was the case of Mike Green. The defenseman enjoyed reasonably good health over the first 50 or so games of the regular season, missing three games to an upper body injury in October 2010, two games to an undisclosed reason in November and two games to the flu in December. Then, in early February, he took a puck fired from the stick of Pittsburgh defenseman Brooks Orpik in the side of the head, knocking him out of the contest after only seven minutes of ice time, and he would miss his next game. Green returned to play against Los Angeles On Feburary 12th, but then missed another five games, returning against the Rangers on February 25th. Green lasted 2:25 in that one, leaving the ice after a check into the boards by Ranger Derek Stepan. It would end Green’s regular season with only 49 games played.

Such was the state of the Caps that their best center and their best defenseman were nursing injuries as the playoffs began, but it would be hard to find any playoff team that was not dealing with some physical problems as the playoffs began.

The Caps drew the New York Rangers in the first round, the team they defeated in seven games in the first round of the 2009 Stanley Cup tournament. And while there seemed to be little suspense in the outcome – the Caps won the series four games to one – there was in the little things that were harbingers of much larger things to come later.

For instance, the Rangers scored the first goal in three of the first four games of the series (in the fourth – Game 2 – they were shut out). Usually, allowing the first goal is the kiss of death to a team in a hockey game; teams played to a .373 winning percentage (standings points earned of those available) in games in which they allowed the first goal in the regular season. The Caps were, in fact, the best team in the league when allowing the first goal (23-19-5), but still won fewer than half of such games played.

Then there was the matter of the “who.” The Caps scored 13 goals in the five-game series against the Rangers. Six of them were split by players named “Alex” (Ovechkin and Semin). Seventeen other skaters split the other seven goals in that series. Given Semin’s streaky nature and Ovechkin’s being hemmed in for much of the season (32 goals), one might have wondered what could happen if those two had an off night or were taken out of the mix by schemes of a stronger opponent. Certainly the Caps were not getting a lot from the rest of the roster.

And there was the defense. Yes, it was nice to hold the Rangers to eight goals in five games, but the Caps had seen that movie before, too. They allowed the Rangers only 11 goals in the seven-game playoff series in 2009 (seven in the last games, two of which ended in shutouts). The Rangers were not a team to scare anyone with their offensive firepower.

That was the context of the five-game win over the Rangers that served as prelude for the second round series against Tampa Bay. The Lightning were a team against which the Caps had a regular season record of 4-1-1, outscoring Tampa Bay, 18-10. But that overstated the differences between the teams. The Caps won the first two games of the season series by a combined score of 12-3. In the last four games of the series, the Lightning pitched shutouts at the Caps twice, both courtesy of goalie Dwayne Roloson, acquired in a trade with the New York Islanders on January 2nd, seemingly with the Capitals in mind (Roloson had some success against the Caps over his career).

Sure enough, the things that went right for the Caps in the first round vanished in the first game of the second round…

-- Allowing the first goal? Tampa got an early goal from Sean Bergenheim. The Caps would leapfrog the Lightning on goals by Alexander Semin and Eric Fehr, but Tampa Bay stormed back to score the game’s last three goals.

-- The Alexes? Semin had a goal to tie the game less than two minutes after the Bergenheim goal that started the scoring, but it was the only point registered by an “Alex” in this game.

-- Defense? The Rangers had five 20-goal scorers in the regular season, but none (save Marian Gaborik) could be thought of as elite. Only Brandon Dubinsky would score more than one goal (he had two) in the playoff series against the Caps. In Game 1 against Tampa Bay, Steven Stamkos had what would be the game-winning goal with less than a minute left in the second period. Vincent Lecavalier had two assists. This was a deeper offensive team than the Rangers.

And there was Dwayne Roloson frustrating the Caps over the last 38 minutes after Eric Fehr put Washington in front, 2-1, stopping 26 of 28 shots overall.

It would be a formula that the Lightning would follow over each of the first four games. They scored the first goal in each game. The Alexes were held to three goals and three assists in those games; the rest of the roster split seven goals in four games. The big three for Tampa Bay of Steven Stamkos, Vincent Lecavalier, and Martin St. Louis scored eight of the 16 goals scored by the Lightning in those four games.

And there was Roloson stopping 104 of 114 shots (a .912 save percentage); not spectacular, but solid enough and consistent. He did not allow more than three goals in any of the four games.

Where New York lacked enough offense either to score early or to score often, they could not compete despite having arguably the better goaltender the Caps faced in the form of Henrik Lundqvist. On the other hand, Tampa Bay had more offensive depth, could get and hold a lead, and parlayed steady goaltending into a series sweep in four games.

It left Caps fans with yet another year of disappointment and the Caps with questions. First, did injuries to Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green make the difference in the playoffs? Let us not pretend they did not. These are two of the best players at their positions in the league and certainly the best at their positions on that team. Backstrom’s injury was keenly felt in that he was better than a point-per-game player in 28 career playoff games before last spring (12-18-30) who did not register a goal in nine games and had only two points in nine games overall. Mike Green is important for his ability to move the puck and for his contributions on the power play; the Caps were 2-for-19 in the Tampa Bay series (he played three games but had only an assist and was a minus-1 in each of the games).

Second, did the Caps get enough from the rest of the roster? In nine playoff games, the Alexes, a banged up Nicklas Backstrom, and a just-back-from-injury Mike Green were a combined 10-14-24, plus-1. The other 16 skaters for the Caps scored a total of 13 goals, no one in that group with more than two. By way of comparison, Sean Bergenheim had four goals in the four-game series against the Caps. Tampa Bay had a player on the undercard step up in a big way. Washington did not.

Third, was the defense – especially goalie Michal Neuvirth – up to the task of shutting down opponents? Much was made (and we made some of it) of Neuvirth’s ability to raise his game in the playoffs. In Canadian junior hockey and the AHL he had a post-season win-loss record of 53-18 in 72 games. He backstopped the Hershey Bears to consecutive Calder Cups, being named the tournament’s MVP in one of them. And when he shut down the Rangers by stopping 140 of 148 shots in the first-round series (a .946 save percentage), it looked as if he would continue that run of strong play and bring the Caps along with him. It landed with a thud in the second round, though. Neuvirth allowed 15 goals on 113 shots (a .867 save percentage) to the Lightning, although in his defense, his shortcomings could be shared by a defense that did not perform well in front of him and a coaching staff that seemed incapable (or oblivious for the need) of adjusting to what Tampa Bay was doing.

And then there was the old “hot goaltender” theme, one that has been passed down from generation (Billy Smith, Kelly Hrudey) to generation (Sean Burke, Tom Barrasso) to generation (Johan Hedberg, Nikolai Khabibulin) to generation (Jaroslav Halak, Dwayne Roloson) of Caps fans.

In the playoffs, weaknesses and shortcomings are magnified. If a team is less than the sum of its parts, it might stumble to a playoff series win. It might find an opponent it can beat. The Caps have won two playoff series in four years, both opening round wins against the New York Rangers. But a team like the Caps that has been less than the sum of its parts cannot, will not, and in 2011 did not, go far in the playoffs. It has been and has become an old and tiresome theme that has haunted this franchise for 25 years and one that looms over it as the Caps seek to qualify for the post season in 2012. It does not mean it is not the top story of 2011.

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