Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 7: Rangers at Capitals

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Maybe this is how it was meant to be. For the third time in four playoff series spanning five seasons, the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers will play a seventh game in their rite of spring.  If you want to relive the ecstasy and the agony of the first two Game 7’s in this recent history, you can do so here and here.

The Caps have a long, sad history in Game 7’s of playoff series.  Overall they are 3-8 in 11 tries at this sort of thing, 2-6 on home ice.  The Caps are 1-1 against the Rangers, winning on home ice in 2009, losing in New York in 2012.  And frankly, there probably isn’t much to be gleaned from either of those games.  The 2009 game involved a very different set of characters, especially for the Rangers, and the 2012 game involved a very different sort of coach and style for the Caps than what they now have.

We are left more to ponder what it is about the Caps in Game 7’s that might be important.  The first thing to notice is that four of the last five Game 7’s, dating back to that 2009 win over the Rangers, have ended in 2-1 scores.  Let us leave out the outlier – the 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semifinals – and focus on those four games.

-- Scoring first has not been essential, but scoring early has been for the Caps.  In their two 2-1 wins they scored first period goals.  And even though in one of them (the 2009 game against the Rangers) they allowed the first goal, being tied or ahead at the first intermission is perhaps a different animal than being behind after 20 minutes, as they were in the two 2-1 losses. 

-- The Caps have not enjoyed much in terms of benefit of the doubt from officials in this series (14 power play opportunities, third fewest of all playoff teams).  Don’t expect this to change.  In the four 2-1 Game 7’s the Caps had a total of seven power play chances, only one in each of their last two Game 7’s.

-- The Caps are a combined 0-for-7 on the power play over those four Game 7’s, misfiring on all 11 shots they took. 

-- Conversely, the penalty kill was tested only sporadically over those four games, the Caps were 8-for-9.  That power play goal allowed was huge, though.  It gave the Montreal Canadiens the first goal and a lead they would not relinquish in a 2-1 win over the Caps in Game 7 of the 2010 Eastern quarters.

-- If history is a guide the Caps will not get a lot of chances.  They did throw 42 shots at Jaroslav Halak in the 2010 Game 7 against Montreal but other than that – 24 shots against New York in 2009 (two goals), 27 against Boston in Round 1 last spring (two goals), and 23 shots against the Rangers in the Eastern semis last spring (one goal).

-- In the four Game 7’s, the big guns for the Caps were silent.  Alex Ovechkin: 0-1-1; Mike Green: 0-1-1; Nicklas Backstrom: 0-1-1.  Of players who have appeared for the Caps in this series, only Matt Hendricks and Joel Ward have Game 7 goals in any of the four of these Game 7’s ending in 2-1 scores, both coming in Game 7 of last spring’s series win over Boston.

-- Shots against have not mattered for the Caps, although the shots do break down into two distinct parts.  The Caps held the Rangers to 15 shots in their Game 7 win in 2009 and the Canadiens to 16 in their Game 7 loss in 2010.  But in the game 7’s of 2012 – both of which featured Braden Holtby in goal for the Caps – Washington allowed Boston 32 shots in their first round Game 7 win and the Rangers 31 in their Game 7 loss in Round 2.  The question there was whether or not that was a product of a much more passive style employed by then head coach Dale Hunter.

In the end, what does it all mean?  For the Caps, it is the what was not there in those four tight Game 7’s that could spell the difference in this one.  We assume that it will be another tight game, of course, but whether it is one goal in the Caps favor or one on the wrong side of the decision could come down to these factors…

  • Power Play… No power play goals in any of the four 2-1 decisions.  If they get one, it will be big.  Even in the context of this series, when a team gets a power play goal, they win.  Of course, that means…
  • Power Play Opportunities… In the four 2-1 decisions those opportunities – for both sides – have been at a premium, only seven for the Caps, nine for their opponents.  In none of those games did either the Caps or their opponents get more than three opportunities.
  • Taking a lead… In three of the four 2-1 decisions the Caps allowed the first goal and were 1-2 in those games.  The Caps had to go to overtime to do it, but in the one game in which they took – and held – a lead in the first period, they won.
  • Big Guns… Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green – no goals scored by any of them in the four 2-1 decisions.  In this series the trio has four of the 12 goals scored by the Caps, but none since Game 3, and Ovechkin has not had a goal since Game 1.  This group has to be heard from in this game.
  • Shots…The Caps did not get a lot of opportunities in the four Game 7’s chronicled here, but they have been able to get shots to the net in this series, averaging almost 32 a game through six games.  If they suddenly struggle in this regard, it will not look good for the home team.

But here is the one number that will hover over this game: zero.  The New York Rangers have never won a Game 7 on the road, going 0-5 in those games, including the 2-1 loss to the Caps in 2009.*  Except for the loss to the Caps in 2009, each of those losses was to the eventual Stanley Cup winner.  On Monday night, the streak will continue.

Capitals 2 – Rangers 1

*  If you’re wondering, the Rangers lost at Boston in 1939, 2-1, in three overtimes; they lost at Detroit in 1950, 4-3, in two overtimes; they lost in 1974 at Philadelphia, 4-3; they lost at Pittsburgh in 1992, 5-1; and they lost in Washington to the Caps in 2009.

NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals -- Game 6: Rangers 1 - Capitals 0

There will be a Game 7.

The home team won for the sixth time in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers when the Rangers held off the Capitals, 1-0, at Madison Square Garden on Sunday afternoon.

One was all the Rangers needed in this one, thanks to a 27-save effort by goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who earned his seventh career playoff shutout.  Derick Brassard scored the game’s only goal mid-way through the second period, when from his perch at the top of the offensive zone he let fly with a slap shot that might have hit two Capitals on its way to the net before bending down and under goalie Braden Holtby’s glove into the back of the net.  It might have avoided Jason Chimera out front, but it certainly seemed to hit defenseman Steve Oleksy’s arm on its way to the net. 

And so, the hockey gods smiled on the Rangers.  The Capitals could not solve Henrik Lundqvist on any of their 27 shots, and it set up a seventh game at Verizon Center on Monday night.

Other stuff…

-- The hockey gods were not the only ones smiling on the Rangers in this game.  The Rangers were not charged with any infractions until the teams had a full-on scrum at the conclusion of the game.  It was the first time that the Caps did not have a single power play in a playoff game since Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals against Pittsburgh in 2009.

-- Meanwhile, the Rangers enjoyed five power plays over a 43 minute stretch from mid-way in the first period to mid-way in the third.  In three games in New York, the Rangers had 15 power plays to the Caps’ five.

-- And for those of you wondering... Rule 52.1 states: "Slew-footing is the act of a player using his leg or foot to knock or kick an opponent’s feet from under him, or pushes an opponent’s upper body backward with an arm or elbow, and at the same time with a forward motion of his leg, knocks or kicks the opponent’s feet from under him, causing him to fall violently to the ice."

...Having done it poorly (Dorsett was the one who tumbled to the ice) makes no difference.  Coming as it did near the boards, it was a dangerous play. 

-- Alex Ovechkin had picked the wrong time to go cold.  This was his fourth straight game without a point, his longest streak of the season and his longest since going four games without a point from November 12 through November 19th in the 2011-2012 season.

-- And there is a difference between “cold” and “playing poorly” (not that the usual talking heads will acknowledge it).  Twelve shot attempts, five on goal, three hits, two blocked shots.  If there was a surprising number in there, it was 19:03 – his time on ice.  But then again, that’s what having no power plays will do.  Only Mike Green had more time on ice in this game (23:40, like Ovechkin all at even-strength).

-- If you are wondering, the Caps have gone into a Game 7 five times in team history having lost Game 6.  They have one win in those instances, that one coming last year in the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against Boston.

-- There were 22 faceoffs in the Capitals’ end of the ice, 11 in the Rangers’ end.  A lot of that was the power play differential, but some of it was the territorial advantage the Rangers had in this game, too.

-- Of those 11 offensive zone faceoffs, the Caps won three, only one of those wins coming in the third period (1-for-4).

-- Tom Wilson played only 5:12 in this game, only one shift in the third period (that lasting one second).  Part of that was his having an equipment problem, but we wonder if the spare ice time is having effects on how the third and fourth lines are assembled over the course of a game and the effects on continuity.

-- A curious dynamic on the Ranger side…Brad Richards getting only 9:34 of ice time and only two shifts in the third period.  He hasn’t played well in this series, but this seemed to be an odd time to be sending a message to Richards, if that was what was going on.  Of course, if Richards has a big Game 7, John Tortorella will look like a genius.

-- You would not think energy would be an issue in Game 7, but the way ice time was parceled in Game 6 among the players of each team does raise the question with the second half of a back to back coming up.  The Rangers had two forwards with fewer than five minutes of ice time – Chris kreider and Arron Asham.  That meant guys like Ryan Callahan (22:22) and Derek Stepan (23:27) were out past their usual bedtime in terms of ice time.

So, another Game 7.  It is not what we prognosticated, but this will be the seventh time in the last nine playoff series for the Caps that they will face a Game 7.  It is not exactly a surprise.  If there is a ray of sunshine to take out of this game it is that the Caps did not play especially well, got no benefit of the doubt in the way the game was called, gave up a bit of a fluky goal, and still lost by only the thinnest of margins.  But thin margins are a staple of playoff hockey, and the Caps find themselves too often on the wrong side of them.  They have one more chance to make things right, or spend another off-season wondering, “what if?”

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 6: Capitals at Rangers

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals take their last trip to New York this season to take on the New York Rangers in Game 6 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series holding a 3-2 lead in games and with a chance to close out the series.

It has been a long time since the Caps closed out a playoff series in six games, but that is their task for Sunday evening.  The last time the Caps turned the trick was in 1998 when they did it twice, beating the Boston Bruins in Boston on an overtime goal by Brian Bellows, and again when they beat the Buffalo Sabres on an overtime goal by JoĆ© Juneau to send the Caps to their first and, to date, only trip to the Stanley Cup finals.  If coincidences are your thing, both of those wins were earned on the road.

If you are looking at games of more recent vintage, in this era of Caps playoff teams (2008-to-present) the Caps are 4-2 in Game 6’s.  In the two games in which they could have closed out a series with a win in Game six and did not, the Caps are 1-1 in the ensuing Game 7’s, losing to Montreal in 2010 after losing Game 6 in Montreal, and beating Boston in Game 7 in Boston after losing Game 6 at home to the Bruins.

This Game 6 will be the 25th post-season game played between these two teams since 2009.  The Caps currently have a 14-10 win-loss record over that span of games against the Rangers.  Some things to think about from that history…

-- For the Caps, the guys you would expect to be the big scorers are just that. Alex Ovechkin is 11-8-19 in 24 games, Mike Green is 4-12-16, and Nicklas Backstrom is 2-13-15.  If there is one player missing whose production might have been helpful, well, that is where Alexander Semin comes in.  He was 8-5-13 in 19 games against the Rangers in this post-season history.

-- For the Rangers, one is struck by the turnover in players.  Only five skaters from the 2011 club that lost to the Caps in five games have appeared in this series – Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Brian Boyle, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello.  Marc Staal, who was also on that squad, has not yet appeared in this series.  Of that group of six players, only Staal recorded a point in the 2011 series, an assist.

-- The situation is reversed in goal.  The Rangers have known only one goaltender to earn a decision in this series.  Henrik Lundqvist is 10-14 against the Caps since 2009 with a 2.26 goals-against average and a .919 save percentage with one shutout.  You would have to go back to 2009 to find another goaltender who appeared for the Rangers, that being Steve Valiquette, who saw 40 minutes of action over two games.

-- Then there are the Caps.  Washington has employed four different goaltenders in this series since 2009
  • Jose Theodore: 0-1, 4.07, .810
  • Semyon Varlamov: 4-2, 1.17, .952, 2 shutouts
  • Michal Neuvirth, 4-1, 1.37, .946, 1 shutout
  • Braden Holtby, 6-6, 1.91, .931, 1 shutout

Where are we going with this?  We are thinking this game is going to turn on the battle between familiar foes – Henrik Lundqvist against Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green.  Lundqvist has not been exactly leak-free in New York, either in this series (2-0, 3.00, .902) or in the series since 2009 (7-4, 2.59, .910).  What Lundqvist does have, though, is four straight wins against the Caps on home ice in the playoffs.

On the other hand, the Caps are going to have to get more out of their Big Three as a group.  Mike Green had a point in each of the first four games of the series (2-2-4), but was held off the scoreboard in Game 4.  He is 2-3-5 in 11 playoff games at Madison Square Garden since 2009.  Nicklas Backstrom has a goal in two games at MSG in this series, and he is 1-6-7 in 11 playoff games there since 2009, half of his assists coming in his first playoff game there in 2009.  Alex Ovechkin does not have a point in either game in New York in this series and has not scored a playoff goal in the Garden since getting the game-winner in Game 2 of last spring’s series against the Rangers.  Overall he is 4-4-8 in 11 games on Ranger ice since 2009.

Ultimately, that battle between old foes could turn on the power play.  The team scoring a power play goal has won each game of the series this year.  This is where the Caps have some work to do.  In 11 games at Madison Square Garden in the playoffs since 2009 the Caps are 7-for-38 with the man advantage (18.4 percent).  However, they are only 3-for-24 in their last eight games there (12.5 percent).

When the series started we wrote…
“This will be a hard-fought series, as have the three been that preceded it.  But while this will be no five-game romp for the Caps as it was in 2011, neither will it be the seven-game series that sandwiched that 2011 series… Capitals in six.”

It has been a hard-fought series, and we have seen nothing to change our minds about the outcome.  This game will be in the hands of the stars for each team, and it will be the guys in white who will do the celebrating.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2