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.