Saturday, June 29, 2013

Washington Capitals: The 2013 Season -- Ten (well...six) Games that Mattered: Capitals at Rangers, May 6th

The last of the six games that mattered for the Washington Capitals in the 2013 season was a playoff game.  No, it was not the 5-0 thrashing the Caps received at the hands of the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup.  In retrospect, that game was foretold by what would happen – or more precisely, did not happen – in an earlier game of the series…

May 6, 2013: Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Game 3

Washington Capitals (2-0) at New York Rangers (0-2)

Result: Rangers 4 – Capitals 3

The Background:  Coming into the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs the Washington Capitals had taken a two-games-to-none lead in a seven-game playoff series six times in franchise history.  They never won that third game in those series to make it 3-0..

That made Game 3 of their 2013 Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers a game of special interest.  They took the Madison Square Garden ice against the Rangers on May 6th having won Games 1 and 2 at Verizon Center, hoping to win that third game to take a 3-0 lead in games for the first time ever in a seven-game series.

While winning Game 3 was important to the Rangers to avoid being pushed to the brink of elimination, the Game was just as important for the Caps.  In those previous six series in which they won Games 1 and 2, but lost Game 3, they went on to lose four of those series. The Caps had just a 2-3 record in series in which they won Games 1 and 2 on home ice. 

Why it mattered:  Winning Games 1 and 2 at home means, if you think of it from the opponent’s point of view, that the winners merely “held serve,” in tennis parlance. Now, with Game 3 and 4 on Ranger ice, it was the New Yorkers’ chance to do the same.  For the Caps the task was simple in concept, difficult to execute – score first, take the crowd out of the game, make the Rangers play catch-up, make them grow more desperate, and then take advantage of the opportunities to drive a stake through the Rangers’ chances to win.

The Caps got the first part of it right barely four minutes into the first period.  It was a superb effort by Nicklas Backstrom that led to the game’s first goal.  It started when he stepped in and picked up a loose puck that the Caps’ Martin Erat and the Rangers’ Brian Boyle were fighting over in the corner to the left of goalie Henrik Lundqvist.  Backstrom carried around the end wall, fighting off defenseman Anton Stralman all the way around the boards and half way up the wall to the right of Lundqvist.  He then one-handed the puck up to John Erskine at the point, who slid it over to John Carlson at the opposite point.  As this was going on, Backstrom was circling back to the middle, putting him in excellent position to try to tip any shot Carlson might attempt on net. That is exactly what occurred, Carlson’s drive tipped down and through the legs of Lundqvist to give the Caps a 1-0 lead and quiet the Madison Square Garden crowd. 

The Caps had an opportunity to further demoralize the Rangers and the crowd as they were killing off a Joel Ward high-sticking call midway through the period.  They almost got out from under the man-disadvantage, but Brian Boyle was allowed to walk in from the right wing wall, and with Mike Green having gone to one knee in what was, one assumed, a defensive posture, Boyle curled around him and snapped a shot past goalie Braden Holtby just as the Ward penalty expired.

Then it was the Rangers turn to take the lead.  Less than 90 seconds into the second period Derick Brassard connected on a power play, wrong footing a wrist shot from the slot past Holtby’s blocker to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead.  The Rangers almost got out of the period with that lead, but with less than three minutes left it was Mike Green tying the game for the Caps.  It started with Eric Fehr working hard along the left wing boards to work the puck out to Mathieu Perrreault.  He worked the puck back down the wall to Jason Chimera, who backhanded a pass through his legs back to Perreault.  From the left wing circle Perreault slid the puck to Green at the top of the right wing circle.  Green walked in undisturbed and wristed the puck over Lundqvist’s glove to tie the game at two-apiece heading into the second intermission.

The Caps were victimized early in a period once more and from an unexpected source once more when Arron Asham was left alone in front of Holtby to take a pass from Brassard and wrist the puck into the back of the net to give the Rangers a 3-2 lead.  Less than five minutes later it was four unsung Caps combining their efforts to tie the game once more.  It started with Matt Hendricks winning a faceoff in the offensive end against Boyle.  The puck was drawn back to Jack Hillen at the left point, with a helpful nudge along the way by Joel Ward.  Hillen wristed it toward the Ranger net, barely missing Ward on its way through.  It did not miss Jay Beagle, though, who was just enough in the line of flight to have the puck deflect off his equipment, changing its track to the left of Lundqvist’s left pad and in.

The Rangers took the lead for a third time as the clock approached the five minute mark of the period.  It started with Ryan McDonagh holding the puck at the Capitals’ blue line and stepping around Alex Ovechkin to work it down the left wing wall.  The Rangers then ran the puck around the end wall – McDonagh to Mats Zuccarello in the left wing corner, then Zuccarello throwing the puck across to Rick Nash in the right wing corner.  Nash then fed a centering pass to Derek Stepan, who came all the way from the neutral zone (backstopping McDonagh as he was trying to hold the puck in at the start of the play) to the low slot, in perfect position to redirect the puck past Holtby.

The Caps had one more chance to send the game into overtime.  Brad Richards took a slashing penalty on Ovechkin with 1:54 left in regulation.  The Caps furiously pressed the matter in front of the Ranger net as the clock was winding down, but they could not manage a shot on goal in what was a 6-on-4 power play.  They attempted three shots, one of which was a Troy Brouwer miss, the other two from Nicklas Backstrom, both blocked by Ranger defenders.  When the last shot was blocked and the puck cleared down the ice, the Rangers held their serve with a 4-3 win.

The Takeaway:  The Caps had their chances.  Then again, they had their chances in other two-games-to-none situations over the years.  In this one, Alex Ovechkin had 11 shot attempts, but only two on net, none after the first period. Braden Holtby, who stopped 59 of 60 shots in Games 1 and 2 at Verizon Center, a .983 save percentage, allowed four goals on 30 shots in this contest.  The Caps let the Rangers back into the game – and the series – on the sticks of foot soldiers like Brian Boyle and Arron Asham.  The penalty killers let the Caps down, allowing Boyle’s goal just as a penalty expired and then allowing a power play goal to give the Rangers their first lead.  At the other end, the Caps not only drew a blank on their own power play, going 0-for-3, but they managed just one power play shot on goal in 5:54 of power play time.  It was an opportunity to take control of the series… wasted.

In the end…

You could see it coming.  Here is the Washington Post’s Katie Carrera describing the attitude at the morning skate…

“The mood at the Capitals’ morning skate Monday at Madison Square Garden ahead of Game 3 was noticeably relaxed. Players whooped it up on the ice, joking and teasing each other as they worked through drills and line rushes.”

Braden Holtby was the one who expressed a certain concern…

“It’s good to a point. I’m not sure we want it as loose as this morning.  It’s still playoff time and you never want to get comfortable. When you’re starting to get loose, you can tell guys are starting to get comfortable and whatnot.”

Maybe the playful attitude in the morning had nothing to do with what transpired in the evening.  Still, it could have been a special moment for the Caps – the first three-games-to-none lead in a seven game playoff series in team history.  But like six teams before them holding a 2-0 lead, they left Game 3 with only a 2-1 lead.

When “special” became “same old, same old,” Caps fans could recite the remaining script from memory.  Another loss in New York, followed by a win at home.  A chance to close out the series on the opponent’s rink, failing to do so when they can’t find the back of the net.  Then, another Game 7 on home ice.  Home ice advantage.  Yeah. 

Going into Game 7 at Verizon Center the Caps had played eight Game 7’s on home ice in team history.  Their record was 2-6, four of the losses coming by one goal, two of them in overtime.  At least Caps fans would be spared the suspense and heartache of a one-goal game or an overtime loss.  The Rangers scored first, tacked on two goals in the span of 130 seconds in the second period, then coasted in the third with another pair of goals to end the Caps’ season, 5-0. 

One could say that the series was lost when the Caps failed to find the back of the net on their last 66 shots on goal in the series, going back to the third period of Game 5.  We argue differently.  The Caps lost this series when they failed to stand on the throat of their opponent in Game 3.  Whether that was the product of a too-cavalier attitude, we cannot say.  What we can say though is that the Caps played this Game 3 like a lot of teams before them.  And when the results were the same as those teams before them, the final result was their destiny.  That is why this game mattered in the 2013 season.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America