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

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.