The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
The last home game of the year.
The playoffs are like that. In the space of less than 48 hours, fans could go from thinking “we could close this out on Friday” to “this could be the last home game of the year.” All turning on one game’s outcome, that being the 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.
So now, it’s on to Game 5, and if you adhere to the notion that “it’s not a series until a team loses loses a home game,” this isn’t yet a series, despite the fact that the teams have combined for 253 shots on goal, 19 goals, 29 power plays, 35 penalties, and 70 penalty minutes.
What did we learn in Game 4 or the games that preceded it that might have relevance to Game 5?
-- The Caps lead the series in 5-on-5 play (1.14 goals scored to every one allowed), power play (16.7 to 11.8 percent), penalty killing (88.2 percent – third best mark in the playoffs – to 83.3 percent), shots on goal (129 – 124). In that sense, they shouldn’t be tied. So why are they?
-- Third periods, to point to one reason. In two wins, the Caps have held the Rangers scoreless in the third period, while they have lost the third period in both losses by the same 2-1 margin after being tied after 40 minutes.
-- It is not as if the Rangers did it in the third period with a barrage of shots. In the last two games they had eight in the third period of each, but a .750 save percentage has done goalie Braden Holtby and the Caps in.
-- As the top line goes, so go the Caps, but perhaps not as much as you might think. In Games 1 and 2, the top line of Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson was a combined 2-1-3, plus-1. Both games were Caps wins. In Games 3 and 4, this trio was a combined 1-0-1, minus-5. It is not much of a difference, and it reflects a general lack of dominance; they account for only three of the Caps’ 10 goals in this series so far.
-- If the first line has been underwhelming, the second line has been unnoticeable on offense. Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat, and Eric Fehr (who replaced Erat when the latter was injured in Game 4) have combined for one goal (Brouwer) and one assist (Ribeiro). That they are a combined plus-5 suggests the lines against which they are playing have contributed just as little offense (less, in fact), but this is the gaping hole in the Caps offense.
-- The Caps are not getting shots from forwards. As you would expect, Alex Ovechkin leads the team in shots on goal in the series (15), but 12 of them came in the Caps’ wins in Games 1 and 2. He has a total of three shots on goal over the last 120 minutes of hockey. After that, it gets worse. Mike Green (12), John Carlson (12), and Karl Alzner (11)…that’s right, Karl Alzner (who had only 39 shots on goal in 48 games in the regular season)… defensemen all, are next in line in shots on goal.
-- There is a disconnect between the Caps advantage at 5-on-5 (1.14 goals scored per goal allowed) and what the top line is doing. Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson have the fifth, fourth, and worst “worst” PDO values at 5-on-5. And, it is a function of low shooting percentages. Those three are in the bottom seven in on-ice shooting percentage/on ice at 5-on-5 (numbers from behindthenet.ca). If those numbers normalize, the Rangers are in a world of hurt.
-- The Caps have had the benefit of a lot of (or at least a large share of) offensive zone starts. Thirteen of 18 skaters have plus-50 percent values at 5-on-5. Not that they are doing a lot with it, especially that top line. Eleven of the 18 skaters have offensive zone finishes in sub-50 percent territory, the first line being seventh, twelfth, and fourteenth.
-- Part of that problem is offensive zone faceoff success. The top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Johansson are all below 50 percent in offensive zone faceoffs wins to losses (behindthenet.ca). Not that they are alone. The Caps are getting creamed in offensive zone draws. Overall they are 33-for-82 through four games (40.2 percent). Little things are magnified at this time of year, especially when the margins for error are as thin as they have been in this series (the game-winning goal scored in the third period or overtime in three of the four games).
-- Martin Erat is going to be missed, just not in obvious ways. Sure, he has not lit up the scoreboard, but despite having the toughest offensive zone start numbers on the team (36.4 percent), he was not on ice for any goal scored against in the first four games. Whoever replaces him not likely to duplicate that performance (even if you consider it one of those small populations of instances). Eric Fehr seems likely to get at least the first shot at taking his spot on the second line, and he might provide more offense than did Erat, who did not have a point in three-plus games of this series.
-- The penalties called against Washington in New York were often of the head-scratching variety, but even with all that nonsense, the Caps killed off eight of the ten shorthanded situations they faced in Games 3 and 4. It was more the effect on rhythm at 5-on-5 – getting scoring lines even and regular timing on their shifts – that might have been the problem.
-- In the “glass half full/glass half empty” file, one might say that the Caps wasted two un-Lundqvistian efforts from Henrik Lundqvist in the two games in New York (a .902 save percentage combined over the two games), and that he will surely return to being a brick wall, this being the Caps he is facing. On the other hand, he hasn’t had all that great a series, save for Game 2, in which he stopped 37 of 38 shots (and lost). Think about this over your morning coffee…in his last 19 playoff games against the Caps (dating back to Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern quarters) Lundqvist is 7-12, 2.35, .910. Good, not great. He has it in him to be “great,” but that is not what his recent playoff performance against the Caps – many of whom have participated in each of those 19 games – says.
In the end, one gets the feeling that the Caps have played better for longer stretches of time than the Rangers, especially at 5-on-5. What the Caps have done is failed in moments. The defensive breakdowns in deep that allowed the Rangers to score four goals from within 15 feet in Game 3, the Braden Holtby pass to nowhere in Game 4, the Steve Oleksy getting caught above the circles in Game 4 that led to the 2-on-1 down low that Jack Hillen could not break up, nor Holtby save.
It has been a case of the Caps doing at least as much to beat themselves as the Rangers have done beating the Caps. This is not prelude to one of those, “well, the Caps played better” eulogies should they lose this series. It merely serves to point out that the key to winning what is now a best-of-three series is a simple, if crude, piece of advice…
Stop sucking, or else it very well might be the Caps' last home game of the year.
Capitals 4 – Rangers 2