Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: Eastern Conference Semifinal, Washington Capitals vs. Pittsburgh Penguins

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

On Thursday evening, the Washington Capitals will open their second-round series in the 2017 postseason by hosting the Pittsburgh Penguins.  In the postseason history of the Capitals, they have faced no team more often than the Penguins.  In 244 postseason games in franchise history, the Capitals and the Penguins faced off 55 times (tied with the New York Rangers). 

It is a history dominated by the Penguins, who have won eight of nine series against the Caps and have a game record of 34-21.  Adding insult to injury, in each of the Penguins’ four Stanley Cup seasons, they defeated the Caps on their way to the championship, twice emerging victorious in a seven-game series, both times on Washington ice.  This is the historical baggage that the franchise carries into their second-round series against the Pens. 

History makes for interesting discussion, not to mention a fair amount of trolling, if you are the club on the winning side of the divide.  But it goes only so far.  As far as this season goes, it was an interesting four games between the clubs…

Four Snowflakes…Each One Different

The Caps had little problem finding the back of the Penguin net in the season series, averaging 5.25 goals per game over the four games.  They didn’t even have that much of a problem keeping the Penguins off the board, except for a bizarre 11-minute stretch of the second period of the contest between the teams on January 16th in which the Penguins scored six goals on ten shots in what would be an 8-7 overtime win to end the season series.  That barrage pushed to the background the fact that over the rest of the series, the Caps held the Penguins to seven goals on 125 shots (a .939 save percentage).

It was one of two extra time wins the Pens posted in the season series, the other coming on Opening Night, when the Pens celebrated their Stanley Cup banner-raising with a 3-2 Gimmick win over Washington.  In between, the Caps turned the Penguins into sea lion chow with 5-2 and 7-1 wins at Verizon Center.

While each of the team won their games on home ice and lost on the road, the progress over the course of the season suggested the ice tilting in the Pens’ direction.  Washington out-shot the Penguins and out-attempted them at 5-on-5 in the first two games, which the teams split.  The Pens won those possession number comparisons in the last two games of the season series, also split by the teams.

The Caps were more efficient on offense over the course of the series, putting a larger share of their shot attempts on goal and scoring goals on a larger share of their shots on goal.


The Caps scored 21 goals in the four games.  In doing so, they had remarkable balance, albeit among a small (or perhaps smaller than expected) group of players.  Six skaters combined for 19 of the 21 goals, led (again, perhaps unexpectedly) by Nicklas Backstrom with four.  Five other skaters – Justin Williams, Lars Eller (another surprise), T.J. Oshie, Alex Ovechkin, and Andre Burakovsky – each had three in the season series.  Brett Connolly and Dmitry Orlov rounded out the goal-scoring, Orlov being the only defender to record a goal in the season series for the Caps.

The setting up of goals did not exhibit quite the same balance for the Caps, and it had a substantively different mix of players.  Backstrom and Oshie led in assists with eight and seven, respectively.  The assist totals drop off from there, defensemen Matt Niskanen and John Carlson with four and three, respectively.  Marcus Johansson also had three.  The result was a scoring profile that was weighted to the top line.  Backstrom (12), Oshie (10), and Ovechkin (5, tied with Burakovsky) leading in points in the season series. 

On the other side, Pittsburgh finished the season with 13 goals in the four games, but more than a third of that total was recorded by Evgeni Malkin, who had five.  No other Penguin had more than two (Conor Sheary and Patric Hornqvist).  On the helper side, Justin Schultz led the club with six assists and tied Malkin for the team lead in points.  To the extent he could be contained, Sidney had five points (1-4-5) in three games, missing the Opening Night contest won by the Penguins, 3-2, in a Gimmick.

The Caps might have had a single goal from its defensemen in the season series, but Dmitry Orlov’s goal was still one more than the entire squad of nine defensemen to dress for the Penguins in the season series.  In addition to Schultz’ six assists from the blue line, Pittsburgh got helpers from Trevor Daley (3), Olli Maatta, and Kris Letang.

So…who are the obvious and the
not-so obvious key skaters for Washington?

Last year, the Caps got precious little in their series against the Penguins from Evgeny Kuznetsov, despite finishing tenth in the league in scoring.  It is part of a longer scoring drought Kuznetsov has had in the postseason, going 2-3-5, minus-5, over his last 19 postseason games.  He has not had much success against Pittsburgh over his career.  In 21 regular season and playoff games against the Penguins, Kuznetsov is 2-6-8, minus-5.  Kuznetsov started the 2016-2017 season slowly, going just 3-16-19, plus-5, in his first 36 games.  But starting with a four-point performance against the Toronto Maple Leafs in a 6-5 overtime win on January 3rd (1-3-4), Kuznetsov went 16-24-40, plus-13, in his last 46 games and was in the top 20 in overall scoring over that period. If he can approximate that level of performance and reverse his sparse production against the Penguins, the Caps will be formidable.

The not-so-obvious, if still obvious player is Kevin Shattenkirk.  He is, quite literally, the “X-factor” for the Caps in this series.  He did not have a particularly productive series against the Toronto Maple Leafs at the offensive end of the ice (no goals, three assists, all on the power play).  However, he is 2-2-4, plus-1, in nine career regular season games against the Penguins.  That career scoring line includes an assist this season, but it also includes a no-point, minus-4 performance in a 4-1 Penguin win over the St. Louis Blues on February 4th.  What he has not done is face the Penguins this season as a Capital, having joined the Caps on February 27th via trade, after the season series against the Penguins had been completed.  Shattenkirk adds an offensive dimension to the Caps blue line – an ability to score goals – that was not present from the Caps this season against the Penguins.  His presence has to be accounted for and could open up things among the forwards.

And for the Penguins?

It would be borderline cliché to put Sidney Crosby’s name in the “obvious” category, but it fits.  In last spring’s series against the Caps, Crosby was held to a pair of assists in six games and was a minus-3.  He had just one power play point in the series.  This from a player who, in his other 123 career postseason games, is 51-91-142, plus-12.  And that includes a 2-5-7 scoring line in the Penguins’ opening round win over the Columbus Blue Jackets.  No Penguin has more career goals or points against the Caps in the postseason than Crosby, who is 8-7-15, plus-1, in 13 career playoff games against Washington.  Crosby does have a knack of rising to the occasion, but it is as often as not a performance that comes in the context of what are generally strong and deep teams (the Penguin Stanley Cup-winning teams, Team Canada).  In this series, even if the Penguins get some of their injured back, they will be a somewhat depleted bunch.  Crosby’s production is not a luxury in this series.  The Penguins have to have it.  If he is more the player he was when he faced the Caps in 2009, when he was 8-5-13, plus-4, in seven games, the Penguins could advance.  If he is held to a pair of assists, or something close to it, as he was last spring, it is hard to see how Pittsburgh moves on.

The not so obvious choice is Justin Schultz.  In the absence of the injured Kris Letang, the Penguins have a considerable dropoff in terms of threats that can keep defenses from cheating up on Penguin forwards.  Schultz, who led the Penguins’ defense in ice time per game in the opening round series against Columbus, did not have an even-strength point in that series (he had three power play assists, the only power play points among Penguin defensemen).  Schultz does not get mentioned often among the best offensive defensemen in the league, but he was one of just nine defensemen to record at least 50 points this season (12-39-51), and his plus-27 was sixth-best among league defensemen.  He is going to have to more closely approximate that level of production in this series than his career postseason line of 0-7-7, plus-1, in 20 playoff games.

What about the goaltending?

The opening round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs was a tale of two series for Braden Holtby.  In the first four games he was 2-2-0, 3.02, .907.  But in the last two games, after an off-day fine tuning session with coach Mitch Korn that might end up being a key moment in this postseason,  he stopped 61 of 63 shots, allowed just one goal in each game, and was the wall he has been for the Caps over the last two seasons.  Holtby is as money a postseason performer as there has been at the position since he became the Caps number one netminder.  In the modern era (post-1967 expansion), Holtby has the best goals against average (1.93) and save percentage (.937) of any goaltender appearing in at least 20 postseason games.  But here is your odd Holtby stat.  If the Caps should find themselves in the position of closing out the Penguins, it is a scenario that has been cruel to Holtby.  In 14 games in which he tended goal in a game in which the Caps could end a series, he has a record of 4-10.  But that comes with a 1.94 goals against average and a .931 save percentage with a shutout thrown in. 

With Matt Murray an iffy proposition for this series,  the nets would appear to belong to Marc-Andre Fleury for the foreseeable future.  And if it seems odd to think of Fleury as an unknown, consider that he has appeared in just a dozen postseason games over the last three seasons (only two in last year’s Stanley Cup run), over which he is 5-6 (one no decision), 2.40, .926; and he has not faced the Caps in the postseason since 2009.  He was 4-1 against the Blue Jackets in the first round with a 2.51 goals against average, but his .933 save percentage was solid.  What he has not been over most of his postseason career is a game-changer on the road.  He is 27-23 in 51 road playoff games, but his 2.88 goals against average and .902 save percentage could be a problem against what was the most successful team on home ice during the regular season.

Frustration Redux?

Last spring, the Caps held Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby largely in check, only to have the line of Carl Hagelin, Nick Bonino, and Phil Kessel – the “HBK Line” – account for seven of the 16 goals the Penguins scored against the Caps, two of those goals being game winners, including the series-clinching overtime goal in Game 6 by Nick Bonino.  That group has had a harder time of it so far this post season, combining for three goals, but two of those were scored by Kessel on power plays.  The question is, can Jake Guentzel and Bryan Rust be the “who are these guys” guys for the Penguins this time around?  Guentzel (5) and Rust (4) combined for nine of the 21 goals scored by the Pens in the first round against Columbus.  The Caps can’t have another set of heretofore unsung players being heroes in this series.

Rediscovering the magic?

The trio of players that comprised the third line for the Caps for much of the season – Andre Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly – combined for 39 goals this season, a respectable output considering they did not start the season together.  However, after March 1st, this trio combined for just five goals, and in the first playoff round against Toronto did not record a goal.  One of the most important factors in last spring’s loss to Pittsburgh in the second round was the lack of production among the bottom six forwards, especially given the production the Penguins got from theirs.  If this group can recapture the magic they had at midseason, it will make for a steep hill for the Penguins to climb to reach the conference finals.

In the end…

Some might say the Caps took the Toronto Maple Leafs lightly, or that they were nervous about their exalted status as a pre-playoff favorite to go deep into the tournament.  Whatever one thinks of those interpretations, the Caps advanced, and the team they take into the second round seems constructed for the singular purpose of pushing past the Penguins.  Pittsburgh brings a wealth of postseason experience and the confidence having won the Cup provides, but they are thin on defense, they are lacking a certain level of production from players who provided it in last year’s Cup run, and there is perhaps just the faintest sense of uncertainty over how Marc-Andre Fleury will fare in goal against a team with more weapons than the Columbus Blue Jackets brought to bear in the first round. 

On the other hand, Alex Ovechkin did not have a particularly dominating series against Toronto, and his production is needed in this round.  Strangely, given the strength at forward both teams bring to the contest, it could come down to which defensive squad has the better series, both in moving the puck out of their own end and in contributing offense at the other end.  The absence of Kris Letang will be keenly felt in both areas, and Washington will take advantage of it.

Capitals in six

Monday, April 24, 2017

Washington Capitals: The Cousins Sittin' On The Porch Looking Back at Game 6

And now, for something completely different.  No, not the second round series against the Pittsburgh Penguins that starts on Thursday.  The Washington Capitals, heavily favored but given all they could handle by the upstart Toronto Maple Leafs, overcame a fair amount of adversity in Game 6 – a roaring Toronto crowd, a misaligned stanchion, another in what seems over the course of their history a series of “hot goaltenders – to tie the game in the last half of the third period, then score in the seventh minute of the first overtime to capture their first round series in six games over the Maple Leafs.

It was a tense evening for the cousins as the Caps once more tested the limits of their ability to stay calm and think good thoughts.   But let’s let them wrap things up…

Fearless… If you were playing the overtime goal challenge, you might have picked a half-dozen players as the potential hero before settling on Marcus Johansson, and that’s just among the Caps’ players.  Going into last night’s game, Johansson had seven goals in 61 career playoff games.  He had never scored more than two goals in any postseason.  It broke a nine-game streak without a postseason goal, dating back to Game 2 of last spring’s series against Pittsburgh.  He scored on each of his only two shots of the contest last night.  Oddly enough, it was the second time in his career that Johansson scored two goals in a playoff game, and both instances came on the road.  The other instance was in Game 4 of the Caps’ 2011 series against the New York Rangers, a game in which Johansson scored two third period goals that, following a goal by Alexander Semin earlier in that period, wiped out a 3-0 Rangers lead before Jason Chimera won the game in double-overtime.

Cheerless… The Caps had the fifth-worst scoring defense in the first round (2.67 goals against per game).  They four teams under them in the rankings? ...gone.  And they won a grand total of three games among them (Toronto had two of them).  Only two team allowed more shots on goal per game than the Caps (35.5).  Strangely enough, both of them are alive – Pittsburgh (38.8) and St. Louis (36.4).  And their faceoff winning percentage…woof!  They are 15th of 16 teams in the playoffs at 46.0 percent.  Hey, draws don’t matter, right?  Well one, it’s attention to detail, and two…why would you dismiss possessing the puck for 10 or 15 seconds with every draw you win?  Put a team on their heels, forcing them to defend more often than not from a faceoff, might have a cumulative effect, eh?


Feerless… Caps had the fourth-best special teams index (power play plus penalty killing rates) in the first round (118.5)…

Cheerless… The three teams ahead of them – Minnesota (129.7), Montreal (127.6), and Chicago (119.0) – are out.  And only Boston had more minor penalties in the first round (26) than the Caps (25).


Cheerless… How close was this series?  The Caps outscored Toronto 18-16.  Washington was outshot, 213-211.  The Caps had 25 penalties, Toronto had 24.  The Maple Leafs were credited with 256 hits, the Caps had 241.  Washington had the advantage in blocked shots, 127-116.  And that was against the eight-seed.  Did the Caps play down to Toronto’s level, or did the Leafs play up to the Caps’ level?

Fearless… The Caps scored more first period goals in the first round than any team (eight) and tied Ottawa for the most goals in overtime (three).  Only Nashville (one) and Anaheim (none) allowed fewer third period goals than the Caps (three).


Fearless… Washington had have the fifth-best Corsi-for at 5-on-5 in the postseason so far (51.30 percent).

Cheerless… They were seventh in adjusted Corsi (50.42 percent; numbers from Corsica.hockey), and they had the second-worst adjusted Corsi Against/60 minutes (66.26).  Only Toronto was worse (67.39).


Cheerless… The Caps kinda dodged a bullet getting as little output from Andre Burakovsky (two assists) even while he had pretty good possession numbers (best individual Corsi-for on the club at 5-on-5: 59.69 percent).  And one of the problems the Caps had last spring – a lack of bottom-six production – showed up in this series.  The five forwards not named “Wilson” finished with no goals and four assists.  The fourth line that finished the series (Brett Connolly for Tom Wilson) didn’t have a point in the series.

Fearless… At the other end, the top-six did their share.  The top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie accounted for eight goals, three of them on the power play.  The second line of Marcus Johansson, Evgeny Kuznetsov, and Justin Williams accounted for six goals.  And every defenseman, save for Karl Alzner, who was limited to two games due to injury, recorded at least one point.


Peerless… The knee-jerk reaction to a series like the one just ended would be to say that the Caps underachieved.  That does not give due credit to the Maple Leafs for the strides they took this season, especially over the last six weeks of the regular season in which their record and that of the Caps were virtually identical. 

In its own perverse way, Toronto might have been the best team for the Caps to face in the first round, even if things ended up closer than anyone might have expected, or wanted, for that matter.  Toronto’s strength at forward and team speed is as close an approximation as one is going to find in the East to what awaits the Caps in the second round against Pittsburgh.  If anything, the Penguins’ defense might be more vulnerable to exploitation, but the experience, not to mention the skill among their forwards will be formidable.  But for now, let’s just be thankful for a first round win.  And for Caps fans who might say, “so what, it’s just the first round,” remember… you can’t win four if you don’t win one.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Washington Capitals: The Cousins Sittin' On The Porch Looking Back at Game 5

The Washington Capitals are in a place with which they have some familiarity over the years, holding a 3-2 lead through five games of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series against the Toronto Maple Leafs.  A Game 5 usually means a series win, looking at the history of such things around the league.  For the Caps, though, it has not been as reliable an indicator of series success.  But we’ll let the cousins bat that back and forth…

Feerless… For much of the season, Capitals Nation has entertained the notion of this being a team different from any other in recent history.  They score like the 2009-2010 team…yeah, well this team is different.  They won 56 games last year, 55 games this year…yeah, well, this team is different.  In some respects, this team has been different.  It is arguably the best defense/goaltending performance in the post-2005-2006 era, if not team history.  They were actually pressed in the late season by Columbus and Pittsburgh this season while they coasted to a Presidents Trophy last season.  But the first meaningful indicator of whether this team is truly “different” this season comes on Sunday night when they can eliminate the Maple Leafs without letting things slide to a Game 7 in Washington on Tuesday.

Cheerless… Well, y’know, this whole “Game 5” thing hasn’t been much of a thing in this “era,” as you call it, cuz.  Since 2005-2006 the Caps took a 2-2- series into a Game 5 on home ice three times.  They won two of those games – in 2013 against the New York Rangers and in 2015 against the New York Islanders.  In those two series, they lost Game 6 in New York against the Rangers in 2013 before losing Game 7 on home ice, and in 2015 they lost Game 6 on Long Island before beating the Islanders at Verizon Center in Game 7.  Know what would really be different here?  Winning Game 6 on the road.


Cheerless… When is this team going to put together a complete game and give us all a break?!  Five games, five one-goal games, four settled in overtime.  This is worse than that 2012 series against Boston that had seven one-goal games, four of them in overtime, including the Game 7 win on the road.  At least the Caps were an underdog in that series, or at least the lower seed playing the defending Stanley Cup champs.  And it’s not like the 2010 series against Montreal where the goalie played out of his mind in the last three games to steal the series from the Caps.  The Caps have played right to the level of their competition in this series.  High scoring games, low scoring games…no matter what, all one-goal games, and the Caps and coin-flips don’t go well together.

Fearless… Yes, this is a game between one- and eight-seeds.  But since March 1st, their records are almost identical.  Washington was 13-6-1, while Toronto was 12-6-2.  Toronto has been rightly characterized as a young team, but they might not be getting enough credit for being a good one.  Sure, one could make the argument that they have had the benefit of some bounces, but they have put themselves in a position to take advantage of the opportunities those bounces provided.  Teams that lack a foundation in fundamentals might not find themselves in those positions.  The Caps have done well to fight through that and carry a 3-2 lead into Game 6.


Fearless… Once more, the game on the ice and the “off season” game intersect.  Look at who scored the goals in Game 5 – T.J. Oshie and Justin Williams.  The players that the front office went out and acquired to address a specific shortcoming after the 2014-2015 season.  Those two are tied for the team lead in goals (three, with Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin), and they are first and third in points, respectively, in the postseason.  Each has a game-winning goal, Oshie’s coming in the third period of Game 4 and Williams’ coming last night in overtime of Game 5.  It is part of a broader theme of the veterans having a pretty good series.  Ovechkin is tied for the team lead with three goals in five games, while Nicklas Backstrom is 2-4-6, second on the team in points.

Cheerless… Then there are the young guys.  Evgeny Kuznetsov occasionally looks as if he is oh, so close on chances or about to break out in a big way, and he did have the primary assist on the overtime game-winner last night on a sweet feed.  But then again, that was his third point in five games.  Him having three and not, say, five, might be the difference between the Caps wining this series in five games and having to go to a Game 6 to close things out.  Then there is Andre Burakovsky.  Two assists in five games makes for 1-2-3 in 17 playoff games over the past two seasons.  And his ice time is starting to look like his performance.  He had 10:44 in Game 4 and 11:56 last night after three games over 13:30, one of them over 19 minutes.  Burakovsky isn’t the reason this series is close, but if he gets untracked it could end really quickly.


Cheerless… The Caps are facing a hard climb in Game 6.  They beat Toronto in Game 4 at Air Canada Centre, but they have not won consecutive games on the road in the postseason since then won three in a row in 2012 against Boston (they haven’t won consecutive games on the road in regulation since 2010 against Montreal).  Since those wins against Boston in 2012, Washington is 6-16 on the road in the playoffs, 1-7 in overtime.

Fearless… The Caps have been in a position to win each of their last dozen games on the road in the postseason.  In those dozen games they have a 4-8 record, but all eight losses were by one goal, five of them in overtime.  To be fair, of the Caps’ four wins in that span, three were by one goal, but all of them in regulation.  It is not as if the Caps have been dominated on enemy ice the last two seasons, but they have been consistently on the wrong side of those close games.


Fearless… If the Caps should be successful in this postseason, Tom Wilson’s effort late in the first period of Game 4 against the Leafs might be referred to as “The Shift” in Capitals lore.  But there might be a day remember in the future that was every bit as important that and that had nothing to do with a game.  Thursday was an off-day between Games 4 and 5, but while the skaters took advantage of the down time to recharge their batteries, goalie Braden Holtby took the ice at 10 a.m. to work with coach Mitch Korn to do some “fine tuning.”  You get the feeling Korn wouldn’t need a tuning fork to tune a Stradivarius or a Steinway (or that he’d bring a lot of funky tools to the job).  Whatever he and Holtby did had the desired effect, a 30-save effort when the Caps desperately needed one.  It might have been his best performance since he authored a 30-save effort in Game 5 of last spring’s second round series against the Penguins, the 3-1 win forcing a Game 6.  If Holtby has been sufficiently “fine tuned,” Toronto’s task becomes infinitely more difficult.

Cheerless… Cuz, about that game against Pittsburgh last spring.  Yup, it was a 30-save effort.  Yup, he allowed only one goal.  Yup, he won on home ice.  Yup, it came after he allowed three goals in three of his previous four games and after he lost three in a row to the Penguins.  But that Game 6 after that 30-save effort?  He allowed four goals on 42 shots and lost in overtime in what was the series-clinching win for the Penguins.  Maybe the key is going to be not letting Toronto use Holtby like a shooting gallery.


Peerless… The Caps took a first period lead in each of the last two games, but they allowed the Maple Leafs to tie the game in the second period twice.  The second period is the only one in which the Caps have a negative goal-differential in the series (minus-2), and they have been outscored, 5-2, in the second periods over the last three games.  It might not be coincidental, the Leafs taking advantage of the long change with their speed to ramp up the pace of the game. The second period has been an issue all season long.  It is something that still bears watching.

The Capitals have had the chance to eliminate a team 20 times in since 2005-2006.  In those 20 games, they have a 5-15 record, 2-9 in their last 11 games in which they could have sent an opponent home.  What is most ominous in an historical context is that the Caps have never won consecutive decisions in games in that span in which they could have eliminated an opponent.  The last time they were in this situation, they eliminated the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 of their opening round series last spring.  Nothing would say – nay, scream – “we’re different”… “WE’RE DIFFERENT! – than ending this series in the Caps’ first chance to send the Maple Leafs off to the off-season. 

However, the thing to watch for now might be on the Toronto side of the ice.  The Maple Leafs have played a high-tempo, but determined sort of game for most of this series.  They have not looked like a team with seven rookies having dressed for games.  Now, however, the Leafs are facing elimination for the first time in this series.  If Shakespeare was a hockey guy, he might call this the “undiscovered country” for the Leafs (for Hamlet, it was death; for Toronto, it is elimination from the playoffs).  How the Maple Leafs deal with this situation might be what decides Game 6.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 5: Washington Capitals 2 - Toronto Maple Leafs 1 (OT)

The Washington Capitals put the Toronto Maple Leafs on the brink of elimination of their first-round playoff series with a 2-1 overtime win on Friday night in Game 6.  The win gave the Caps a 3-2 lead in the series as the teams head back to Toronto on Sunday night.

Washington, as they did in Game 4 and 5, took a first period lead.  With Nazem Kadri in the penalty box for the Leafs, the Caps scored on a late power play.  Kevin Shattenkirk started the scoring play backing the puck inside the Toronto blue line to create space.  He sent the back in the direction from where he came, to Nicklas Backstrom at the right point.  With space on that side, Backstrom stepped up and wristed a shot off the near post to the left of goalie Frederik Andersen.   The puck caromed out the far side, and T.J. Oshie was quick to circle in and backhand the puck past Andersen’s right pad before Zack Hyman could close on him.  The Caps had a 1-0 lead 18:15 into the period.

Toronto got the equalizer six minutes into the second period.  Working the puck below the Caps’ goal line, William Nylander circled out to the left of goalie Braden Holtby.  From the right wing faceoff circle he spun and fired a shot at the net.  It pinballed among a clot of bodies and slid out to Holtby’s right, where Auston Matthews was open.  Matthews stuffed the puck past Holtby’s right pad, and it was a 1-1 game.

That would be all the scoring until overtime, the fourth time in five games the teams went to an extra session.  It did not last long when a basic play that players have been seeing drawn up since they were playing pee-wee unfolded.  Jay Beagle won a defensive zone faceoff, and Matt Niskanen took control of the puck.  Skating to the red line, he dumped in deep behind the Toronto net.  Marcus Johansson was first to the puck and chipped it to Evgeny Kuznetsov in the corner to Andersen’s left.  Kuznetsov spied Justin Williams following the play down the middle, and he teed up a pass for Williams to lean into.  Williams’ one-timer from between the hash marks found its way between Andersen’s pads, and the Caps found their way to a 2-1 win...

Other stuff…

-- The fourth overtime game in this series ties for the most in a series in Caps history.  Washington and the Boston Bruins played four overtimes in 2012, each club winning twice, the Caps’ second win coming in Game 7.

-- Justin Williams’ overtime goal was the seventh game-winner in his career, his second in this series, and the third time he did it against the Maple Leafs (his first career game-winner came in a 6-1 win over Toronto in Game 7 of their opening round series in 2003). 

-- Getting to “two” was a good thing.  The Caps are 40-26 in playoff games since 2005-2006 when scoring two or more goals.

-- With the win, the Caps are now 12-17 in overtime decisions since 2005-2006 and evened their overtime record on home ice in that span at 7-7.

-- Alex Ovechkin skated a more normal 19:29 in ice time after consecutive games under 17 minutes.  His 15:4w4 in even strength ice time was second only to Evgeny Kuznetsov (15:47).

-- At the other end, Brett Connolly skated just 6:12 for the game and had only three shifts after the first period totaling 2:46.

-- Tom Wilson did not work or play well with others.  Four minor penalties, two of them for unsportsmanlike conduct.  It helped hold him to 10:14 in ice time and just a single shot attempt (on goal).

-- That Connolly did not have a shot attempt in his six minutes of ice time is not surprising.  A little less surprising that Jay Beagle didn’t have one, either, in 12:16 of ice time.  Daniel Winnik had all three shot attempts for the fourth line (shot on goal, a miss, a shot blocked).

-- The Caps had 22 blocked shots, not an extraordinary amount, but they did spread the bodily sacrifices around.  Twelve different skaters recorded at least one, with John Carlson leading the team with five.

-- The even-strength battle was fought to a virtual draw.  Toronto had 50 shot attempts to 48 for the Caps, while the Caps had 22 shots on goal to 21 for the Maple Leafs.  Each team had one goal at fives (numbers from Corsica.hockey).

In the end...

The off-day work Braden Holtby did with coach Mitch Korn appeared to pay off.  He was a good deal sharper than he has been at any time in this series and allowed one goal in a postseason game for the first time since he stopped 30 of 31 shots in a 3-1 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 5 of last spring’s second round playoff series.

The point has been made that the Toronto Maple Leafs are a team that won’t go away.  And now they are going home with their season in the balance.  Don’t count on the Caps going away.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Washington Capitals: The Cousins Sittin' On The Porch Looking Back at Game 4

The Washington Capitals wrestled home ice advantage back from the Toronto Maple Leafs in their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series on Wednesday night with a 5-4 win in Game 4 in Toronto.  It sets up a contest on the battlefield that has been the strategic focal point throughout the postseason history of the Capitals franchise – Game 5.  Let’s see what the cousins have to say about the game just completed and the one looming on the near horizon.

Fearless… It was not as much the five goals the Caps scored against the Maple Leafs in Toronto last night, it was the “who” got them.  A first liner got two (T.J. Oshie), a promoted third liner got two (Tom Wilson), and of course, the primariest primary scorer of them all got one (Alex Ovechkin).  Ten different players shared in the points – six forwards (five goals, four assists), four defensemen (four assists).  And about those defensemen, four of the six had a point.  Matt Niskanen and John Carlson did not record a point, but Carlson was a plus-3 (best on the club).  It might have been the most balanced offensive effort of the series for the Caps.

Cheerless… Two games, two times the Caps scored two goals before the game was five minutes old.  Two two-goal leads.  In fact, the Caps have had five two-goal leads in the last two games – 2-0 and 3-1 in Game 3; 2-0, 3-1 (which became 4-1), and 5-3 in Game 4.  They lost Game 3 in overtime and escaped by the skin of their teeth from another overtime in Game 4.  Here is a number you might not want to look directly at…in the last two games, the Caps were out-shot in the third period by a combined 28-9.


Cheerless… Alex Ovechkin had 16:31 in ice time in Game 4.  That was almost 90 seconds more than he had in Game 3 (15:08), but it is the first time in 88 career playoff games that Ovechkin skated consecutive games with less than 17 minutes of ice time.  And there he was in the third period last night, getting just seven shifts in the third period (none in the last 4:33) and 4:51 in ice time.  Is this the Caps being cautious to a fault in the third period, trying to hold onto a two-goal lead?  Would they be better served by trying to plant the dagger in the Maple Leafs?

Feerless… Caution hasn’t been all bad.  Only three teams have allowed fewer third period goals than the Caps (two), and it perhaps no coincidence that Nashville and St. Louis hold commanding leads in their series, while the third team – Anaheim – completed their sweep of Calgary on Wednesday night.  I’m frankly more concerned with those first and second periods, in which the Caps have allowed five goals in each, blunting the momentum they have established early.  No team has more first period goals than the Caps in this postseason (seven), but Toronto is sitting right there with the third-highest first period goal total (five).  When the Caps get a lead, they need to do a much better job of standing on Toronto’s collective throat and not letting them off the floor and back into the game.


Feerless… One of the things that has perhaps not gotten enough attention is the contribution from the blueline in this series.  Six of the seven defensemen to dress so far for the Caps have points, three of them having recorded two points.  It might not sound like much, but in 12 games last postseason, the Caps had six of eight defensemen record points, but only three with at least two points.  And, if you look at the seven defensemen to have dressed, specifically the “seventh” slot, which has been split between Karl Alzner (no points in the first two games) and Nate Schmidt (a point in each of the last two games), the Caps are getting, at the moment, balanced contributions from the defense.

Cheerless… It says something that three defensemen have at least ten shots on goal in four games.  But among John Carlson (15 shots), Dmitry Orlov (10), and Kevin Shattenkirk (17), they have one goal.  Getting shots to the net is a good thing – it creates the chance for rebounds, at the very least.  And what’s up with Brooks Orpik and Shattenkirk?  Minus-5 and minus-4.  Hurt?  Let’s just hope it’s a slump.  It happens to defenders, too.


Cheerless… Caps fans always seem to have a sense of doom about them.  This shows itself in different ways in different postseasons.  This year it’s “the Leafs are getting all the bounces!”  There is a perception that more than a usual share of Leafs’ goals are being scored by deflections or the fortuitous (like that word, cuz?) bounce that leaves a puck right at the feet of an Auston Matthews or a Tyler Bozak with an open net in front of them.

Fearless… One of comforts of Corsi as an indicator over time is that it reflects the climate of a series.  Sure, a team might get a lucky bounce, a gork, a dribbler with eyes (Cheerless…cuz, stop doing your Crash Davis thing), but over the longer haul, the team that plays better is the team that will have more success.  It’s like the difference between weather and climate.  You’ll have hot days and cold days, dry days and wet days.  That’s how the weather changes, but over time, the trend moves generally in one direction – climate change.  Same here.  Some days you get the bounce; others the other guy gets it.  You might even see a couple or three games in a row where the other guy gets all the breaks, and you can’t buy one.  But over time, the team that “plays” better does better.  And right now, through four games, the Caps are fifth in Corsi-for at 5-on-5 (51.33 percent).  Not that there isn’t room for improvement, since the Caps actually trail Toronto in adjusted Corsi-for, the Leafs seventh overall (50.73 percent) and the Caps tenth (49.27 percent).  If the Caps can press the advantage they have been securing early in games, they could finally break this team.


Fearless… For all the unfortunate history of the Capitals in the postseason and the outsized importance of Game 5, this Caps team is in barely explored territory going into Game 5.  This is just the second time since the 2004-2005 lockout that the Caps will take the ice in Game 5 after tying a series at two games apiece with a win on the road.  They beat the New York Islanders in overtime of Game 4, 2-1, to tie their series, 2-2, before winning Game 5 by a 5-1 margin.  They went back to Long Island and lost Game 6, 3-1, but they prevailed in Game 7 on home ice in a 2-1 nail-biter to advance to the second round.  So, if you are looking for history to guide you here, there isn’t much to go on. 

Cheerless… Game 5 on home ice.  You’d think it matters.  Well, you wouldn’t be right.  You wouldn’t be wrong, either.  It just does not seem to matter all that much.  Since 2008, when the Caps returned to the playoffs for the first time since the 2004-2005 lockout, the Caps have hosted a Game 5 nine times.  They are 6-3 in those games.  OK, well did the wins in games lead to wins in series?  Not consistently.  In the six Games 5 that they won, the Caps went on to win the series three times, losing the series three times.  The odd thing is, they’ve alternated series wins and losses after Game 5 wins.  If they win Game 5 on Friday night, the arrow points this year to a series win after they lost their series against Pittsburgh in Game 6 last spring after winning Game 5.  As for the losses, the Caps lost two of the three series in which they suffered a Game 5 loss.  The exception was last season, when the Caps beat the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 6 in Philly after losing Game 5 on home ice.  If you are giving a lot of weight to the result of Game 5, win or lose, don’t.   


Peerless… Through four games you have teams that are mirror images of one another.  One team has learned how to take advantage (the Caps) but hasn’t figured out a way to finish off their opponent decisively.  On the other hand, Toronto has allowed the Caps to do pretty much as they please early in games, especially the last two, but not so much that they can’t hang around and make the Caps nervous and dominate late. 

The series has become almost all about Washington at this point.  Can they win a decisive Game 5?  Can they close out the Leafs?  Can they actually make use of home-ice advantage?  They’ve faced similar questions in the recent past, and the answers have not been pleasant.  Consider Game 5 another chance for this team to prove that it is different – in a good way – from those Caps teams that preceded it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 4: Washington Capitals 5 - Toronto Maple Leafs 4

The Washington Capitals looked to get out of a 2-to-1 deficit in games when they took the ice against the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre in Toronto on Wednesday night.  It was as close as any of the other three games, but unlike those games, this one did not go to overtime, the Caps skating off with a 5-4 win to even the series at two games apiece.

The Caps, as they did in Game 3, opened the game with a pair of early goals.  With the game not three minutes old, the Caps had a faceoff in the Toronto end.  Nicklas Backstrom won the draw cleanly back to Nate Schmidt at the left point.  His shot snuck through but came to rest at the pads of goalie Frederik Andersen.  Backstrom darted in, getting inside position on Tyler Bozak, and slid the puck to T.J. Oshie circling out from the other side of the net.  Oshie pulled the puck to his forehand and snapped a shot into the net before Andersen could get across, giving the Caps a 1-0 lead 2:58 into the game.

Bozak took a penalty a minute later, and the Caps made the Leafs pay. Morgan Rielly tried to play the puck up the wall and out of the defensive zone, but he got it only as far as Kevin Shattenkirk at the right point.  Shattenkirk sent the puck across to Alex Ovechkin in the left wing circle, and Ovechkin made a direct call from his office, burying the puck past Andersen at 4:34 of the period to make it 2-0.

As the Caps have done too often in this series, though, they gave up momentum, this time in the form of a Zach Hyman goal just 42 seconds after Ovechkin’s, tipping a Jake Gardiner drive past goalie Braden Holtby.

The Caps regained their two-goal lead eight minutes later when Lars Eller stormed down the right wing, skated the puck down and around the back of the Toronto net, came out to the right of Andersen, turned and fired a shot that clipped Tom Wilson on the way through, eluding Andersen to make it 3-1 at the 13:41 mark.

Wilson scored again less than three minutes later when he accompanied Andre Burakovsky on a 2-on-1 in the Toronto zone.  Burakovsky’s pass was right on Wilson’s tape, and he wasted no time snapping a shot past Andersen’s glove to give the Caps a 4-1 lead going into the first intermission.

Toronto got the only goal of the second period, converting a power play chance early on.  Working the puck around the perimeter, the Maple Leafs finally got it to James van Riemsdyk in the right wing circle.  VAN Riemsdyk’S shot hit Dmitry Orlov’s skate as Orlov was sliding across to try to block the shot.  It altered the direction of the shot enough to elude Holtby on the near side, and it was 4-2 as the teams went off for the second intermission. 

In the third, the Caps had a Nate Schmidt goal washed out on a goaltender interference call, and the Maple Leafs took advantage of the break not long after.  A Connor Brown fed Matt Hunwick for a one timer that was stopped in front.  But Auston Matthews pounced on the rebound and sent it past Holtby;’s right pad to make it a 4-3 game 12 minutes into the period.

Just 59 seconds later, T.J. Oshie restored the Caps’ two goal lead for a third time.  With neither team able to control the puck at the Toronto blue line, Backstrom finally poked it ahead to Oshie behind the Maple Leaf defense. Oshie did not spare a moment in ripping a shot through Andersen’s pads to make it 5-3 at 12:59.

Toronto made things interesting in the last minute of regulation with Andersen pulled for an extra attacker.  William Nylander fed the puck down from the right point to Mitch Marner, who fired a shot on goal.  The puck did not get all the way through, but it did squeak off to the left to where Tyler Bozak was parked, and he stuffed it into the net with just 25.8 seconds left.  It was as close as the Maple Leafs would get, though, and the Caps skated off with a 5-4 win and a new series heading back to Washington.

Other stuff…

-- Tom Wilson had two goals in the first period.  His first career multi-goal period.  His first career multi-goal game playoff game.  His first multi-goal game of any kind in the NHL.

-- T.J. Oshie had a two-goal night, his second multi-goal game as a Capital in the postseason.  He became just the second Capital to record more than one playoff multi-goal game in the post-2005-2006 lockout era (Alex Ovechkin has five).

-- Braden Holtby has made a lot of big saves over the past several years for the Caps, but if the Caps do damage in this postseason, the “save” by Tom Wilson will be the stuff of legend.  Morgan Rielly looped in on the right side and wristed a shot at the net that slithered between Holtby’s pads.  From the other side of the play, Wilson circled behind Holtby and dove at the puck, knocking it off the line just as it was about to touch red paint…

…and that was Wilson in front to screen Frederik Andersen and get a piece of the Lars Eller shot going through to make it a 3-1 game.  If the game had been tied at the other end, we might be writing the pre-obituary to the Caps season tonight.

-- The Caps turned the tables on the Leafs in penalty killing in this game.  After Toronto killed a full, two-minute 5-on-3 power play on Monday, the Caps killed 1:56 of 5-on-3 power play time to end the second and open the third period with the Caps holding a two-goal lead.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had a two-assist night.  It was his 15th career multi-point postseason game.

-- Toronto was charged with 29 giveaways and 38 turnovers overall, including Caps takeaways.

-- With Tom Wilson on the third line with Lars Eller and Andre Burakovsky, Brett Connolly joined Jay Beagle and Daniel Winnik on the fourth line.  As a group that trio had just one shot attempt (Beagle had a shot attempt blocked).  Connolly skated less than five minutes (none in the last 12:16), Winnik less than seven minutes, and it took two late defensive shifts in regulation to get him to that level.

-- The Caps won more than half the draws they took (32 of 6/52.5 percent), but in the last 2:59 of the game, Toronto won six of seven draws, four of them in the offensive zone.  The odd thing was that the Maple Leafs scored their fourth goal with less than half a minute left after losing their only draw in those last three minutes.

-- Kevin Shattenkirk skated just 12:54 for the defense.  That is a career low (by almost two full minutes) in 51 career postseason games.  He skated 14:43 in a 3-1 St. Louis Blues win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 5 – the series clincher for the Blues – in their 2012 opening round series.

-- This makes four times in his last five postseason games that Braden Holtby allowed four goals.  He had allowed four or more goals only six times in his first 45 career playoff appearances.

In the end…

The Caps won the shot attempts battle at 5-on-5 (52-45/53.61 percent) and outscored the Maple Leafs, 4-2, at fives.  But yet, the Leafs hung around and hung around.  The Caps, who have now allowed more goals than any other playoff team except the Columbus Blue Jackets, almost let the Leafs hang around long enough to force another overtime.  But there was that one instance when a Nate Schmidt goal was disallowed for goaltender interference.  It was, it appeared to these red-rocked eyes, a liberal interpretation of the term, “interference,” for this is what Rule 69.1 states, in part:

“This rule is based on the premise that an attacking player’s position, whether inside or outside the crease, should not, by itself, determine whether a goal should be allowed or disallowed. In other words, goals scored while attacking players are standing in the crease may, in appropriate circumstances be allowed. Goals should be disallowed only if:  (1) an attacking player, either by his positioning or by contact, impairs the goalkeeper’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal; or (2) an attacking player initiates intentional or deliberate contact with a goalkeeper, inside or outside of his goal crease. Incidental contact with a goalkeeper will be permitted, and resulting goals allowed, when such contact is initiated outside of the goal crease, provided the attacking player has made a reasonable effort to avoid such contact.”

Did Nicklas Backstrom, by his positioning or contact, impair Frederik Andersen’s ability to move freely within his crease or defend his goal?  That seems a hard case to make when: a) the Toronto defender “positioned” Backstrom in the blue paint by pushing him in, and b) Andersen initiated contact with Backstrom by wrapping his glove arm around Backstrom’s waist.  And, did Backstrom initiate intentional or deliberate contact with Andersen?  It is, again, hard to make the case when the video evidence suggests that Backstrom is being pushed in by the Toronto defender, and he is being impaired from backing out of the crease – i.e., to avoid contact with Andersen  -- by said defender.  Through these red-tinged eyes, the refs blew that call, and the official explanation is woefully thin on explanation. 

It mattered.  Had the goal been allowed, the Caps would have had a 5-2 lead with less than 12 minutes left in regulation.  Toronto scored less than four minutes later to complete the two-goal swing, avoiding a three-goal deficit and closing the gap to a single goal.  Thus are the thin margins on which games are won and lost in the playoffs.  Tonight, the Caps fought through that misfortune and scratched out a win in spite of it.  It was not pretty, but it was precisely the kind of win the Caps needed – hard fought, resolute.  Winning teams win those games at this time of year.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Washington Capitals: The Cousins Sittin' On The Porch Looking Back at Game 3

The Washington Capitals dropped their first round playoff series to the Toronto Blue Jays last night in a 4-3 overtime loss.  It was the…

Cheerless!... Step away from the keyboard.  It’s the Toronto Maple Leafs, not the “Blue Jays” – allegedly a baseball team – and the Caps only lost their second game of the series, not the clincher.

Now, what have we here?  Oh yeah… the Caps lost last night.  Tough one.  Gagged on a two-goal lead.  Another overtime.  What happened?  Where does the series go from here?  On what is “National Animal Cracker Day” in the United States, it’s all we can do to keep from going “animal crackers” with the way this team can confound its fans.  Let’s bring the cousins in for some insight…

Cheerless… Say what you want, but this series has the stink of my boots after cleaning fish on a July day.  In the “did you know” department, did you know that the Caps have yet to beat Blue Ja… uh, Maple Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen in regulation time in his career?  Two wins and an overtime loss in three regular season decisions, and now two wins and an overtime loss in three postseason decisions.  The Caps better find a way to solve this guy in something less than 60 minutes, or we’re going to be breaking out the golf clubs a lot quicker than we thought.

Fearless… Solving Andersen has not been their problem.  His even strength save percentage is middle-of-the-pack in the playoffs so far (.942 – ninth among 17 goalies to dress so far), and only four goalies have allowed more even strength goals than he has (six).  The trouble is, the only goalie he has to outplay is the one at the other end of the ice.  In that sense, this is a two goalie ranking.  You’re either first or last.  And at the moment, Andersen is first, because Braden Holtby’s even strength save percentage is just .918, and he’s one of those four goalies to have allowed more even strength goals than Andersen (eight).  On the one hand, he has a respectable .925 save percentage in the even-strength portion of games.  On the other, he is .800 in three overtimes, and he now has a 7-11 win-loss record in overtime in his career.


Fearless… Alex Ovechkin is rested.  He finished the regular season with nine straight games playing less than 20 minutes, and he’s been under 20 minutes in two of three games in this series.  The 15:08 he played on Monday night was the second-lowest ice time in the postseason of his career, surpassed only by the 13:36 he played in a 3-2 Caps win over the New York Rangers in Game 2 of the Eastern Conference Semifinals in 2012.  He had the game-winning goal in that game.  Last night, the problem was penalties.  The Caps took four in the third period and faced three Toronto power plays (one carried over into overtime, the one on which they scored the game-winning goal).  So, Ovechkin skated only 4:13 in the third period.

Cheerless… Cuz, I’m not the best at arithmetic, but if I take 4:13 from 15:08 in total ice time, he still skated less than 11 minutes over the first two periods.  Can anyone explain that one?  Six forwards had more even strength ice time than Ovechkin (12:40), and Brett Connolly had almost as much (12:13).  At this time of year, you can’t say for certain that he’s not hurt.  Players hide injuries as best they can.  But if he’s not hurt, what’s with the ice time?


Cheerless… The Caps have had their second period troubles this season, so scoring four goals and allowing four goals in the middle period over three games is not surprising.  But this is a team that owned the first and third periods this season.  But they have a minus-1 goal differential in the first period and a plus-1 in the third.  What’s worse, they struggle to get and maintain separation from this team.  They allowed the first goal in Games 1 and 2.  They seemed to get past that bugaboo last night with two early goals, but then they let Toronto back into the game.  They seem to treat the matter like it was one of those small-plate dinners…. “oh, two goals, that’s enough…we’re full.”  Guys, it’s a buffet!  Eat up! 

Fearless… The silver lining in those goals by period is that the Caps have not allowed a third period goal in any of the three games and outshooting the Leafs, 30-21 in the third periods of games.  That turned around a bit last night, when the Caps went the first 13:26 of the period in a tie game without a shot on goal, but on the other side they did hold the Leafs to nine shots in the period in a tie game, too.


Fearless… If the Caps ever piece together more pieces of a complete effort, they can end this series successfully.  In Game 1, the Caps got a power play goal, a goal from a second-liner (both by Justin Williams), and an overtime winner from a fourth-liner (Tom Wilson).  Game 2 it was two power play goals (Alex Ovechkin and John Carlson) and one from a top-liner (Nicklas Backstrom).  In Game 3, it was the top line getting a pair (Backstrom, Ovechkin), and the second line getting one (Evgeny Kuznetsov).  What they haven’t done is piece more of it together in a game.  It’s been either this or that, not both this and that.

Cheerless… And it’s been “where the #@$% is the third line” in all three games.  No points in three games (Andre Burakovsky has a power play assist).  The off season solved this problem, or so we thought, because these guys – Burakovsky, Lars Eller, and Brett Connolly – have had a pretty good year together.  But the same things that killed the Caps against the Penguins last season – getting outdone in the bottom-six matchup, especially on the third line – is coming back again.  Hey, Corsi is nice.  Goals are better.


Cheerless… Weird fact…Toronto is the 12th different franchise that the Caps have met in the postseason.  In the first meetings against the other 11 franchises, the Caps have a series record of 3-8.  Except for beating the Philadelphia Flyers in a best-of-five series back in 1984, a three-game sweep (to date the only Caps sweep in franchise playoff history), the only other series the Caps won against teams they faced for the first time in the playoffs were in 1998, when they beat the Ottawa Senators and the Buffalo Sabres on their way to their first and only Stanley Cup final.  Trouble is, the Caps were 2-1 after three games of both of those series, not 1-2.

Fearless… Except for that godforsaken west coast trip in March (and the Dallas Stars game that preceded it), the Caps haven’t lost three in a row since November.  If you are thinking they don’t have it in them to win three more games, this is a team that had nine winning streaks of three or more games this season.  Taking back control of this series is not some flight of fancy, of hoping they can do things heretofore unheard of this season. 


Peerless… The Caps are perched on a knife blade.  You get the feeling that they haven’t yet put together a complete 60-minute game and/or have not had more than one element of their game working for any length of time.  When another gets going, the first one shuts down.  If they can consolidate their efforts and get more than one forward line working over 60 minutes and/or get their defense playing responsibly more consistently, they can still make the Leafs pay.

On the other hand, there will be all sort of happy talk about this team being different, that history doesn’t matter, that worry is something for the fans.  But this is also a team that in this era – since 2008, not going back to the dim past of Rod Langway and Mike Gartner – has advanced to the second round five times in nine seasons, but no farther.  That wall of history ahead between them and the next round is one they’ve spent time laying bricks to build, too.  The trick is going to be finding the sledgehammer to knock it down.  The only “must-win” game at this time of year is an elimination game, but Game 4 takes on the character of “seriously…if you want a decent chance to advance…”  Better find that sledgehammer quick.

Monday, April 17, 2017

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 3: Toronto Maple Leafs 4 - Washington Capitals 3 (OT)

The Washington Capitals took to the road for the first time this postseason to face the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series at Air Canada Centre.  And, like the first two contests at Verizon Center, this one went to overtime.  There, the Leafs scored at the 1:37 mark on a power play to win, 4-3, and take a 2-1 lead in games in the series.

Washington opened the scoring in the game’s third minute with both clubs down a man.  With Justin Williams off for the Caps for holding Morgan Rielly, who was tagged with embellishing the play, Nicklas Backstrom put the Caps in front on the Caps’ first shot on goal.  Washington broke out of their end smartly with T.J. Oshie moving the puck to Nate Schmidt exiting the defensive zone.  Schmidt related the puck to Backstrom angling through the neutral zone.  Backstrom lifted a pass off the right wing wall to Schmidt darting down the wing, then headed to the net to take a return pass from Schmidt that he redirected past goalie Frederik Andersen at the 2:43 mark to make it 1-0.

Alex Ovechkin put the Caps up by a pair on the team’s second shot on goal two minutes later.  The Caps hemmed the Leafs in their own end and freed the puck in the right wing circle to T.J. Oshie.  From there, Oshie fed Backstrom, who relayed the puck across to Alex Ovechkin at the top of the left wing circle for a one-timer that beat Andersen at 4:40 to make it 2-0.

Late in the period, Toronto got one back on an odd play in a game that would become filled with them.  Auston Matthews backed off the Caps defense, carrying the puck down the middle over the Caps’ blue line.  His original shot was muffled and found its way off the face of defenseman Nate Schmidt, back onto the stick of Matthews, who tucked it past goalie Braden Holtby’s left pad to make it 2-1, 14:08 into the period.

Early in the second, the Caps restored their two goal lead.  The Caps broke out of their end, three abreast, Justin Williams feeding the puck up to Evgeny Kuznetsov in the neutral zone.  Kuznetsov skated the puck to the Toronto line and then eased it off to Marcus Johansson on his left.  Johansson curled behind Kuznetsov and fired a shot that Andersen stopped with his right pad, but the puck caromed right to Kuznetsov low in the left wing circle. Kuznetsov swept a shot behind Andersen before he could recover, and it was 3-1, 5:39 into the period. 

Then, the Caps relived the oft-quoted rule that the two-goal lead is the most dangerous in hockey.  Toronto closed within a goal on a second-chance shot by Nazem Kadri from the cheap seats.  His initial shot from just inside the blue line pinballed in front of Holtby and skittered to the right wing corner.  The Caps could not clear, and the puck made its way back to Kadri at the right point.  He circled out and floated a shot that eluded a clot of players in front and found the back of the net 15:13 into the period to make it 3-2.

Toronto made it all the way back in the last minute of the second period.  It was a simple case of dump and chase.  Zach Hyman dumped the puck in deep and went after it.  He got it to Matthews, who fed William Nylander open in front.  Nylander’s first shot was stopped, but the rebound came right back to him, and he had time and space to slide to his right and fire the puck past Holtby, who was still on the ice from the initial save.  Going to the second intermission, it was a new game at 3-3.

After 20 minutes of scoreless third period hockey, that was how regulation ended, with one notable exception.  Lars Eller took a high-sticking call with 16 seconds left in regulation to put Toronto on a power play to start the extra period.  With the power play winding down, Tyler Bozak converted a feed from Nazem Kadri from the low slot, beating Holtby past his left pad and sending the Maple Leaf faithful into a delirium with the 4-3 overtime win.

Other stuff…

-- The game could have turned mid-way through the second period when the Caps had a full two-minute 5-on-3 power play, followed up by a 5-on-4 man advantage less than a minute after their unsuccessful 5-on-3 expired.  They hit on one of those three power plays there, it’s a 4-1 game, and it might have gone in an entirely different direction.

-- Is there a line that has “played” better recently without much to show for it than the Caps’ third line?  The Lars Eller – Andre Burakovsky – Brett Connolly line has had good possession numbers, but they have not been able to convert much of that advantage into offensive numbers.  Tonight, no points, four shots on goal, six shot attempts.

-- In a 3-3 game, the Caps did not record their first shot on goal of the third period until the 13:26 mark.  In the last 22:36 of the game, the Caps managed four shots on goal.

-- This was the first time in Caps franchise history that they played overtime in each of their first three games of a series.  They are still short of the all-time high for overtime games played in a series.  In 2012, the Caps played four overtime games against the Boston Bruins, splitting the first two and the last two games of the series that the Caps won, in overtime, in Game 7.

-- Washington scored their first 4-on-4 goal of the season on Nicklas Backstrom’s goal to open the scoring.

-- The Caps took four penalties in the last 16:26 of regulation. That’s not shooting yourself in the foot, it’s taking a howitzer to it.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had a goal and an assist for his 14th career multi-point playoff game.  That ties Peter Bondra for fourth-most in franchise history.

-- T.J. Oshie had a pair of assists, giving him four multi-point games in the playoffs as a Capital.

-- In his last 12 appearances in the postseason, Braden Holtby is now 4-8, 2.26, .925, with one shutout.  However, he has allowed four goals in three of his last four appearances dating back to last spring against Pittsburgh. He is 1-3 in those games, all of the losses coming in overtime.

-- Toronto dominated the 5-on-5 game, outattempting the Caps, 54-38.  The shots at fives were equal (20 apiece), but Toronto outscored the Caps, 3-2, at 5-on-5 (numbers from Corsica.hockey).

In the end…

The Caps can win this series, without a doubt.  The trouble is that now, it would not be the way to bet.  In fact, it’s just hard to figure out just how to bet on this series.  Six times in the Rock the Red era, the Caps fell behind, 2-1, to open a series.  Three times they won (2009 against the New York Rangers, 2012 against the Boston Bruins, and 2015 against the New York Islanders); three times they lost (2008 against the Philadelphia Flyers, 2012 against the Rangers , and 2016 against the Pittsburgh Penguins). 

The Caps have yet to put together anything resembling a complete 60-minute, all hands on deck effort in this series.  If the Caps do not find a way to do that, and now against a team swelling in confidences, they will be one more load to toss on the slag heap of playoff history that haunts this franchise.  On the other hand, teams that win a Cup more often than not seem to have to beat back adversity in their journey, as often as not early in the tournament.  Consider the Caps now in that situation.