Monday, May 21, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 6: Washington Capitals 3 - Tampa Bay Lightning 0

There will be a Game 7.

The Washington Capitals kept their hopes of a Stanley Cup alive on Monday night, forcing a Game 7 in their Eastern Conference final series with a 3-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning at Capital One Arena.

First Period

This was a hard, closely fought game from the first puck drop.  The teams traded momentum, the Caps feeling it early and the Lightning grabbing the advantage late in the period, but neither team could solve the other’s goaltender in the first 20 minutes.  There was not a lot of work for either netminder, the teams combining for only 14 shots in the opening period.  Washington had eight shots on goal, Tampa Bay had six.

Second Period

The Caps killed off an early shorthanded situation, Jay Beagle going off on a hooking call, and it was the only power play of the period until late in the frame.  With under seven minutes to go in the period, Lightning defenseman Braydon Coburnwas sent off on a hooking call.  It was the break the Caps needed.  Nicklas Backstrom circled out from the right wing corner along the wall and played catch with Evgeny Kuznetsov at the goal line.  When Backstrom took the return pass from Kuznetsov, he slid down the wall to create a passing lane, and when Alex Killorn reversed his stick to defend against a pass to the top of the zone, Backstrom had his opening.  He slid a pass between Killorn and Ryan McDonagh to T.J. Oshie for a one-timer that beat goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy on the glove side to make it 1-0, 15:12 into the period.

That would be how the teams went to their respective locker rooms after 40 minutes, the Caps holding a decided 23-14 edge in shots on goal.

Third Period

One had a feeling that the team scoring the next goal would win, and mid-way through the period, we had our answer.  Hustle was the keyword on the scoring play.  It started (and keep this in mind) with Devante Smith-Pelly chipping the puck out from below the goal line and out of the Olympia corner in his own end through center ice.  Chandler Stephenson chased Coburn down ice and forced the linesman to wave off icing as the puck slowed at the Lightning goal line.  Stephenson hounded Coburn off the puck behind the Lightning net, and Jay Beagle gathered it up in the corner to Vasilevskiy’s left.  Begale sent it back in the direction from which it came, to Stephenson below the goal line.  Stephenson backhanded a pass out to Smith-Pelly – the player who started the play 190 feet in the other direction – and he snapped a shot under Vasilevskiy’s pad to make it 2-0 at the 10:02 mark of the period.

The Caps clamped down from there, including a critical penalty kill just minutes after Smith-Pelly’s goal, and Oshie wrapped up the scoring with an empty net goal with 50 seconds left to send the teams off to a Game 7 on Wednesday night.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps extended an odd record of never having lost an elimination game on home ice in games other than a Game 7.  They are 6-0 in such games.

-- This was Braden Holtby’s 71st appearance this season, regular season and playoffs.  This was his first shutout of the season.

-- This was T.J. Oshie’s second career multi-goal playoff game on home ice with the Caps.  His other one was a hat trick (including the overtime game-winner) in a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 1 of the 2016 Eastern Conference semifinal.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had a pair of assists, his 23rd career multi-point playoff game.  The Caps are 15-8 in those games (seven of the eight losses were in overtime).

-- Devante Smith-Pelly recorded his eighth career playoff goal.  His teams have won seven times when he recorded a goal.

-- Hits can be a bit arbitrary in their award, but the Caps finished with a 39-19 edge in credited hits.  Most times that is a reflection of the other team dominating possession, but in this one it seemed more a case of the Caps imposing their will on the game.

-- Lars Eller has had a difficult series, and he did not record a point in this game, but he was a symbol of the idea, don’t be a liability, play your game.  In 16 minutes of ice time, he had three shots on goal, six shot attempts, three hits, and he won 12 of 18 faceoffs.  That was a solid third line center performance.

-- Here is a number to keep in mind for Game 7: 16:55.  That was Alex Ovechkin’s ice time.  In only one other game in this postseason did Ovechkin have less ice time, that in the Caps’ 6-3 Game 6 series-clinching win against Columbus in the first round (16:08).  He might have a lot more in the tank.

-- Brooks Orpik isn’t going to put up big – or many – offensive numbers, but his performance was “Orpikian” – 19:38 in ice time, a fight, six hits, a blocked shot, and he finished plus-1.

-- The Caps were solid down the middle in this game, right down to Jay Beagle, who finished with an assist, plus-2, two takeaways, two blocked shots, and he won 13 of 16 draws.  A solid fourth-line center effort.

In the end…

The Caps did what they had to do – they gave themselves a chance.  They did it in Game 6 by dictating pace and style for most of the game, and they got perhaps Braden Holtby’s best game of the season.  It was certainly his biggest clutch performance.  In a game like this, in a situation like this, not everyone needs to be a star, but you can’t be a liability out there.  In that respect, the Caps were a seamless unit of 18 skaters.  There were few holes and few opportunities for Tampa Bay to gather much in the way of momentum.  Everyone played in their lane, which made for as solid a “team” effort as the club displayed this season.  Do it one more time, and the Caps will be heading west to open the next round.

Washington Capitals: Ten-HUT!!!

Now, I want you to remember that no bastard ever won a hockey game by taking a hit for his team. He won it by making the other poor dumb bastard take a hit for his team. Men, all this stuff you’ve heard about the Caps not wanting to fight, wanting to stay out of the contest, is a lot of horse dung. Caps traditionally love to fight. All real Caps love the sting of battle. When you were kids, you all admired the champion marble shooter, the fastest runner, the big league ball player, the toughest boxer. Caps fans love a winner and will not tolerate a loser. Caps play to win all the time. I wouldn’t give a hoot in hell for a man who lost...and laughed. That’s why this spring Caps have never lost and will never lose a playoff series.  Because the very thought of losing is hateful to Capitals.

Now... a hockey club is a team. It lives, eats, sleeps, skates as a team. This individuality stuff is a bunch of crap. The bilious bastards who wrote that stuff about individuality for NHL Network don’t know anything more about real hockey games than they do about fornicating.

We have the finest food and equipment, the best spirit and the best men in the world. You know, by God I actually pity those poor bastards we’re going up against. By God, I do. We’re not just going to check the bastards, we’re going to cut out their living guts and use them to tape the blades of our sticks. We’re going to hit those lousy Lightning bastards by the bushel.

Now, some of you boys, I know, are wondering whether or not you'll chicken out under fire. Don't worry about it. I can assure you that you will all do your duty. The Lightning are the enemy. Wade into them. Spill their blood. Check them into the boards. When you put your hand into a bunch of goo that a moment before was your best friend's'll know what to do.

Now there’s another thing I want you to remember. I don’t want to get any messages saying that we are holding our position. We’re not holding anything. Let Tampa Bay do that. We are advancing constantly, and we’re not interested in holding onto anything except the enemy. We're going to hold onto him by the nose, and we're going to kick him in the ass. We're going to kick the hell out of him all the time, and we're gonna go through him like crap through a goose.

There’s one thing that you men will be able to say when you get back home. And you may thank God for it. Thirty years from now when you’re sitting around your fireside with your grandson on your knee and he asks you, "what did you do in the great Stanley Cup playoffs," you won’t have to say, "Well, I shoveled shit in DC."

Alright now, you sons-of-bitches, you know how I feel. Oh...and I will be proud to lead you wonderful guys into battle – anytime...anywhere.

...that's all.

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 5: Tampa Bay Lightning 3 - Washington Capitals 2

Things started poorly right out of the gate for the Washington Capitals in Game 5 against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.  They dug themselves an early hole and ran out of time before they could climb out of it, dropping a 3-2 decision to leave themselves on the brink of elimination going into Game 6 in Washington.

First Period

It took the Lightning just 19 seconds to put the Capitals in a hole.  With the Lightning getting an early territorial advantage off a Capitals neutral zone turnover, Ryan Callahan smacked the puck off Dmitry Orlov in the left wing circle, where it found its way right onto the stick of Cedric Paquette.  He wasted no time in snapping a shot past goalie Braden Holtby and the Lightning were off and running. 

Mid-way through the period, Tampa Bay struck again.  Orlov was nudged off the puck by Steven Stamkos in the neutral zone, and with Orlov splayed on the ice, Nikita Kucherov grabbed the puck and darted into the offensive end.  He fed Ondrej Palat filling in down the middle, and Palat snapped a shot past Holtby’s blocker to make it 2-0 9:04 into the period.  This would end the first period scoring.

Tampa Bay had 13 shots on goal to the Caps’ four (three by defensemen), and they had a 29-8 edge in shot attempts.  Twelve Capital skaters did not have a shot attempt, including the whole top line of Evgeny Kuznetsov, Alex Ovechkin, and Tom Wilson.

Second Period

Tampa Bay struck in the first minute again, this time when Anton Stralman walked around defenseman Matt Niskanen and curled to the net, his shot popping up into the air.  Callahan swooped in, and the puck ricocheted off his right hand over a prone Holtby, and it was 3-0 just 33 seconds into the period.

Evgeny Kuznetsov got one back for the Caps, finishing off a generally good all-around shift.  The Caps worked tha puck along the right wing wall until it came out to Matt Niskanen at the right point.  Niskanen backed off to create a shooting lane, and he fired the puck past Stamkos’ left leg toward the Lightning net.  Kuznetsov, angling in from the right wing circle, got his stick on the puck as it was sailing by and redirected it off the near post behind goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and in to make it 3-1, 4:21 into the period.  Despite more pressure applied by the Caps over the course of the period, this was the only puck they could sneak past Vasilevskiy.

Third Period

With a two-goal lead going into the period, the Lightning were looking to hang on.  They played like it.  They exerted little pressure in the offensive zone and tried to get in the way of every shot attempt in their own end.  The strategy nearly backfired late in the period when Alex Ovechkin one-timed a pass from John Carlson past Vasilevskiy with 1:36 left in regulation.  That would be as close as the Caps would get, though, and the Lightning took their third win in a row in this series, 3-2.

Other stuff…

-- When Evgeny Kuznetsov scored a goal in the second period, he set a franchise record of 22 points in a single postseason, topping the 21 points that Alex Ovechkin had in 2009. And, he did it on his 26th birthday.  Ovechkin’s goal gave him 21 points in this postseason, tying his career best.

-- Think the Caps were pressing late?  Alex Ovechkin averaged 43 seconds per shift in the first period and 52 seconds per shift in the second.  He averaged 1:07 per shift in the third period.  He skated 6:49 of the last 10:15 of the game and 4:28 of the last 4:48 of the game.

-- Ovechkin did not record a shot on goal until there was 3:38 left in regulation.  He had three shots on goal in that last 3:38, the last of which was his goal.

-- The Caps had 30 shots on goal for the game; John Carlson had eight of them.

-- After posting 29 shot attempts in the first period, Tampa Bay had only 19 shot attempts over the last 40 minutes.

-- Nicklas Backstrom, despite his wonky hand, won 12 of 17 faceoffs.  He has won 18 of 26 draws taken in this series (69.2 percent).

-- This was the first game in this postseason that the Caps did not have a power play.  It was the eighth time in team history they did not have a single power play chance in a game, the first since Game 1 in the Eastern Conference semifinal against Pittsburgh last season.  The Caps are 2-6 in such games and have never won such a game when played on the road.  The oddest part of this string in the fabric of history is that of the eight postseason games played without the benefit of a power play, four have come against the New York Islanders.

-- The Caps had more hits (35) than shots on goal (30).  Then again, so did Tampa (24 to 22).

-- When Tampa Bay got their third goal, it was a sign.  In losing this game, the Caps are now 4-7 when allowing three or more goals in this postseason, 6-0 when allowing two or fewer.

-- Braden Holtby now has a streak of the sort he has never had before.  In stopping 19 of 22 shots (.864 save percentage) he now has three straight games with a save percentage under .900.  He stopped 54 of 64 shots over those three games (.844).  He has a lifetime record of 10-9 in the postseason when facing fewer than 25 shots in a full game.

In the end…

The series now enters its elimination phase, and it really becomes more of which Caps team shows up in Games 6 and 7.  If the team that skated the third period of Game 5 shows up and skates that way for 60 minutes in each contest, they can (and probably should) win this series.  If the team that skated the first 20 minutes in Game 5 opens the same way in Game 6, then Tuesday will be the first day of another long offseason.

Thursday, May 17, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 4: Tampa Bay Lightning 4 - Washington Capitals 2

The Washington Capitals had an opportunity to take a stranglehold on their Eastern Conference final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night at Capital One Arena.  When the final horn sounded, the Caps lost their vise-grip on the series with a 4-2 loss and face the unsettling possibility of perhaps having to play one more game on home ice this season, a place that has provided no advantage to the Caps in this series.

First Period

The early game feeling out period ended abruptly with the Caps taking the first lead in the game’s fifth minute.  It was a matter of persistence, starting with Dmitry Orlov working himself free to get a shooting lane on the Tampa net.  His initial shot was stopped by goalie Andri Vasilevskiy,and the rebound that found its way to the stick of T.J. Oshie was stopped on a pirouetting move by Vasilevskiy that enabled him to get his left pad on the shot.  Oshie recovered behind the Lightning net and fed Orlov, who leaned into a one-timer that nicked Vasilevskiy’s shoulder on the way through, but not enough to keep the puck from settling into the net in the far top corner.  The Caps led, 1-0, 4:28 into the game.

The lead lasted 70 seconds, though.  A ghastly no-look backhand pass from Michal Kempny in his own end was put right on the stick of Tampa’s Tyler Johnson.  A tic-tac-toe passing sequence later, and it was Brayden Point putting the puck in the back of the net from close range at the 5:38 mark.

Less than three minutes later, Tampa Bay had its first lead of the game.  With Lars Eller in the box on a holding call, Steven Stamkos one-timed a pass into the short side of the net from the left wing circle before goalie Braden Holtby could get across to close the hole.  The Lightning led, 2-0, 8:32 into the period and took that lead to the first intermission.

The Caps held a 15-7 edge in shots on goal and a 23-11 edge in shot attempts overall.  They out-hit the Lightning, 12-7, and they won 16 of 24 faceoffs (66.7 percent).

Second Period

The Caps opened the period with sustained pressure on the Lightning, and it yielded dividends five minutes in.  Tom Wilson pried the puck off the wall at the penalty box side of the neutral zone, and Alex Ovechkin scooped it up.  He turned and lifted a long saucer pass to Evgeny Kuznetsov streaking down the left side.  Kuznetsov worked his way around Yanni Gourde, who tried to whack Ovechkin’s pass out of the air.  Kuznetsov broke in on Vasilevskiy and snuck a shot between the pads to tie the contest at the 5:18 mark.

Despite consistent pressure from the Caps that kept Tampa bottled up in their own end, there would be only the one goal in the second period, the teams going to the locker rooms tied 2-2 after 40 minutes.

The Caps out-shot the Lightning, 14-6, in the second period and out-attempted them, 24-16.

Third Period

The teams traded momentum in the first half of the third period, the Caps with the advantage early on, but the Lightning starting to tilt the ice as the minutes ticked by.  Tampa was gifted an advantage when Lars Eller took his second penalty of the game.  The Caps managed to kill the power play, but it was for naught as the Lightning scored six seconds after the penalty expired, Alex Killorn putting Tampa Bay ahead 11:57 into the period.

The goal did seem to take the wind out of the Caps’ sails for a few minutes. The Caps did rally to put pressure on the Lightning late, but Anthony Cirelli wrapped things up for the visitors with an empty net goal with two seconds left to clinch it, 4-2.

Other stuff…

-- The Capitals had three power play chances in the first period, converting none of the seven shots they managed to put on goal over the six minutes of man advantage ice time.

-- That makes 0-7, all-time, against the Lightning on home ice.

-- Washington finished with a 38-20 advantage in shots on goal and a 65-45 edge in shot attempts.

-- Nicklas Backstrom returned to the ice, recording four shots on goal (tied for team lead) and winning six of nine faceoffs.

-- Lars Eller took two minor penalties, giving him five in the last two games.  This after going nine straight games without taking a penalty.

-- Alex Ovechkin had 13 shot attempts, but six of them were blocked.

-- The Caps played a short bench with Andre Burakovsky (8:30), Devante Smith-Pelly (8:42), and Jay Beagle (9:27) all skating fewer than ten minutes.

-- The Caps were 0-for-4 on the power play, despite getting the players who needed to shoot their shots on goal.  Ovechkin had three, and T.J. Oshie and Evgeny Kuznetsov had two apiece.

-- Smith-Pelly was credited with a team-high six hits.

-- Braden Holtby stopped 16 of 19 shots faced.  He is now 35-for-42 in Games 3 and 4 (.833 save percentage).

In the end…

The series is now tied, but that is a matter of arithmetic.  The momentum the Caps grabbed in Tampa, they surrendered on home ice, and Tampa is now in control of the series.  The best that can be said is that the home team has lost every game in this series.  But that isn’t the sturdiest foundation for hope as this series heads into its best-of-three phase.  The Caps’ mettle is being tested.  They have passed the tests presented to them thus far.  They will have to do it again in Game 5 to avoid facing elimination on home ice in Game 6, a place that has become a house of horrors in this series.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Washington Capitals: Three Games In and When It Just Doesn't Matter

Round 3’s Game 3 look-back at the Washington Capitals puts us in a mind of the cinematic triumph that is “Meatballs.” That American screen classic featured one of the truly great inspirational speeches in film, offered by the legendary comedic genius, Bill Murray, in his tour de force

Boiled to its essence, the theme today is, “it just doesn’t matter…”
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps are up, two games to one, in this series.  They were down, 1-2, to Columbus in Round 1, and they were up, 2-1, against Pittsburgh in Round 2.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps allowed two power play goals in Game 3 last night.  They allowed two power play goals in Game 2 and won.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps allowed those two power play goals for the second time in this series.  They allowed two power play goals twice to Columbus, and they allowed two power play goals twice to Pittsburgh.  They won both series in six games.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps had 38 shots on goal last night.  It was the highest shot total they had in a game settled in regulation in this postseason, and in the four games in which they finished a game with at least 35 shots, whenever it ended, the Caps are just 2-2.
  • It just doesn’t matter that Tampa Bay had five power play opportunities last night.  It was the third time in this postseason that the Caps faced five shorthanded situations (one in each series now), and they won their previous two instances.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps won only 43.8 percent of their faceoffs last night (28-for-64).  First, it is the second straight game that they went 28-for-64), and second, the Caps are 8-2 when finishing below 50 percent on draws in this postseason.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps’ shot attempts-for at 5-on-5 were 53.16 percent last night.  The Caps are 5-3 when over 50 percent in this postseason, 5-2 when under 50 percent.
  • It just doesn’t matter that the Caps had only seven blocked shots last night.  They are 3-3 when recording fewer than 15 blocked shots.
  • It just doesn’t matter that Jay Beagle was minus-7 in shot differential at 5-on-5.  The Caps are 9-4 in games when he is a minus player in those situations.
  • It just doesn’t matter that Braden Holtby lost last night.  He has not lost consecutive games in the same postseason since he lost Games 1 and 2 to Pittsburgh last spring.  That’s 20 straight games (he did lose consecutive games in the last game last spring and the first one against Columbus this spring).
To put it more succinctly, it just doesn’t matter what happened.  What matters is Game 4.  Let the Mohawks…er, Lightning… get all the really good-looking girls… we’ll take the win instead.

Monday, May 14, 2018

Washington Capitals: A Brief History of Winning Games 1 and 2 on the Road

The Washington Capitals have had a difficulty history in the postseason, as even the most casual Caps fan knows.  One of the noteworthy facts of that history is what happens in Games 1 and 2, and what follows.  More to the specific point, now that the Caps have won Games 1 and 2 in their conference final series against Tampa Bay, what does history have to say, if anything, about that development?

As it turns out, not much.  But even a limited history suggests that there could be a test lurking on home ice in this series.  Coming into this season, Washington won Games 1 and 2 of a best-of-seven series eight times in team history.  Oddly enough, the first time they did so had to wait until 1992, when they defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins in Games 1 and 2 on home ice before dropping the series in seven games.

The wins in Games 1 and 2 in this series against Tampa marked the third time in team history that the Caps swept the opening games of a best-of-seven series on the road.  The first time was in 1996 against the Penguins, and the other instance was against the Lightning in 2003.  Both series later featured something one would hope to be avoided this year – a multi-overtime game.

In 1996, the Caps and the Penguins needed four overtimes to settle Game 4 at USAirways Arena in Landover, MD.  It was a game that the Caps led, 2-1, after two periods, but Petr Nedved scored a power play goal eight minutes into the third period to tie the game, and Nedved ended the contest with only six seconds remaining on a Penguin power play and only 45 seconds left in the fourth overtime.  At the time, it was the third-longest game ever played in the NHL postseason and the longest since the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Maroons needed 116:30 of extra time before the Red Wings won, 1-0, in the Stanley Cup semifinal in 1936.  Pittsburgh went on to win the 1996 series against the Caps in six games, three of the Caps’ losses coming on home ice, two of them (including the series-clincher) by one goal, one of them that four-overtime gut punch.

The other instance in 2003 featured a multi-overtime game that was all-too-similar to the 1996 marathon against the Penguins.  The Caps and Lightning had already played an overtime game on the MCI Center ice sheet, the Lightning winning Game 3 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals, 4-3, less than three minutes into overtime after the Caps tied the game, 3-3, late in regulation on a goal by Brendan Witt.  The Lightning won Game 4 at MCI Center and then Game 5 in Tampa before returning to Washington for Game 6 with a 3-2 series lead.  On Easter Sunday, April 20th, the Caps once more took a lead into the third period.  And once more, they allowed a third period power play goal (this one by Dave Andreychuk) to tie the game late in regulation.  The teams fought to a draw through two overtimes, but early in the third period, Jason Doig was a bit too eager to get onto the ice  and into the play before a teammate got off, and the Capitals were hit with a too-many-men penalty.  Martin St. Louis ended the game, the series, and the Caps’ season 4:03 into the third overtime.

There might be an extra-time game lurking in this series in which the Caps have opened with two wins on the road.  If this team is different, and they are presented with such a test, it would serve them well to write a different chapter in the team’s history in such games, one that does not involve failing to hold a third period lead, allowing a power play goal to tie the game in regulation, and then losing deep into overtime on another power play.  Tend to business, close them down, wrap things up.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 2: Washington Capitals 6 - Tampa Bay Lightning 2

The Washington Capitals completed their mission on Sunday night, sweeping Games 1 and 2 in Tampa after a 6-2 win at Amalie Arena.  The Caps broke on top, fell behind, and then they scored five unanswered goals to secure the victory.

First Period

The Caps have had hot starts in games in this postseason, but tonight started with…wait for it…a clap of thunder.  Matt Niskanen threw a shot at the net in the first minute, and Tom Wilson redirected it past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy to give the Caps a 1-0 lead just 28 seconds into the contest.

Then, the Caps ran afoul of the officials.  Two penalties midway through the frame caused problems.  One could argue that neither penalty had merit, but they were called, and Tampa Bay made the Caps pay.  After a Tom Wilson goalie interference call that was iffy (was he pushed into the goaltender?), Brayden Point got the Bolts even when he swatted a rebound of a Steven Stamkos one-timer past goalie Braden Holtby, and the game was tied at the 7:08 mark.

After a clearly bad call on T.J. Oshie for high-sticking Victor Hedman (replay showed it was the puck, not Oshie’s stick, that clipped Hedman in the head), Stamkos finished off some slick side-to-side passing by cashing in on a one-timer to give the Bolts a 2-1 lead 10:22 into the period.  That would end the scoring in the first 20 minutes.

Second Period

It might have been the most “Capital” of Capitals goals in this postseason that could end up being the pivotal mark of this series, should Washington go on to win.  In the third minute, Alex Chiasson and Devante Smith-Pelly broke into the offensive zone on a 2-on-1 rush.  Chiasson held the puck into the right wing circle, and then he went all “Nicklas Backstrom,” saucering a pass across to Smith-Pelly, who fired a laser to the far side of Vasilevskiy, off the post, and in to make it 2-2, 2:50 into the period.

The Caps struck twice late in the frame to take the game by the throat.  Lars Eller converted a goal-mouth feed from Jakub Vrana with just 1:02 left in the period.  Then, with the Caps on a power play in the dying seconds, Evgeny Kuznetsov fired a shot from the goal line extended to Vasilevskiy’s left, the puck hitting the goalie’s skate and trickling in with 2.6 seconds left in the period to send the teams to the locker room with the Caps ahead, 4-2.

Third Period

The Caps drove a spike into the hearts of the Lightning early in the period when the Caps had another 2-on-1 break.  This time it was Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin, Kuznetsov laying out a pass for an Ovechkin one-timer from the left wing circle that Vasilevskiy could only wave at as the red light went on again, the Caps up by a 5-2 margin 3:34 into the third period.

Brett Connolly ended the scoring midway through the period when he jumped into the offensive zone as the third man in, took a feed from Lars Eller, and swept a shot past defenseman Mikhail Sergachev and over Vasilevskiy’s blocker to make it 6-2, 12:57 into the period.  The stand emptied, the Caps skated off the clock, and the team was on their way home for Games 3 and 4 after sweeping a pair in Florida.

Other stuff…

-- Ovechkin’s goal was his tenth of the postseason, making him the third player to reach double digits (Mark Scheifele has 12; Jake Guentzel has 10).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had three points (1-2-3), and Ovechkin had two (1-1-2), giving both 19 points in the postseason, tied for fourth overall.

-- Tom Wilson had a goal and an assist.  It was his third career multi-point game in the postseason, all of them on the road (at Toronto and at Columbus being the other venues).

-- Lars Eller had a three-point game (goal, two assists), his second three-point game of the postseason (he had a three-assist game against Pittsburgh in the second round) and second of his career.

-- John Carlson had a pair of assists, bringing his postseason point total to 14.  Only Winnipeg’s Dustin Byfuglien has more (15) among defensemen.

-- Sixteen of 18 skaters finished as “plus” players for the Caps.  Only Andre Burakovsky and Chandler Stephenson failed to put a plus on the ledger (both were “even”).

-- Tom Wilson and Brooks Orpik rolled a pair of sixes.  Both finished with six credited hits.

-- Odd that the defense would lead the way in shots, but Dmitry Orlov and John Carlson had five apiece to lead the team.  As a group, the defense had 16 of 37 shots.

-- This was the ninth time in 14 postseason games that the Caps allowed an opponent four or more power plays.  It was their sixth win in such games.  Still, three of the four Caps losses have come in such games, and it does point to a need to stay disciplined.

-- Almost lost in the noise was Braden Holtby stopping all 26 even strength shots he faced, bringing his even strength save percentage in the postseason to .936, third-best among goalies appearing in at least five games.

In the end…

It would have been hard to script a better game, start to finish.  The Caps scored first and early, they weathered a couple of iffy calls (one of them an outright wrong call), and then closed with a rush.  In doing so, six different players accounted for the six goals, and Braden Holtby was impenetrable at even strength.

The thing is, though, one bounce can change momentum and a series.  What would we be talking about tonight if a Tom Kuhnhackl shot hits a pipe and caroms in, instead of out, in overtime of Game 6 against the Penguins?  But this Caps team has tended to business diligently in this postseason, and one gets the impression that if this series is to change, it would have to be more by Tampa Bay ramping up its game than the Caps succumbing to a bad break.  Who would have thought we would be typing that sentence in May?

Friday, May 11, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 1: Washington Capitals 4 - Tampa Bay Lightning 2

The Washington Capitals opened their Eastern Conference final series against the Tampa Bay Lightning on a positive note, scoring a pair of goals in each of the first two periods, and then closing out the Lightning, 4-2, at Amalie Arena in Tampa.  It was a night on which a top player was absent, but an absence filled by solid performances from several players.

First Period

The teams went through their early-game feeling out period, but it didn’t last all that long.  The Capitals opened the scoring in the eighth minute when Michal Kempny collected the puck at the left point, adjusted his position for a better shooting lane, and then snapped a shot that sailed past the combined screens of Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin, past goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy and into the top corner of the net to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.

That might have been it for the scoring but for a bizarre last ten seconds of the period.  With the Lightning on a power play, it appeared as if they tied the game on a goal Nikita Kucherov, but the goal was disallowed for a too-many-men penalty with eight seconds left in the frame.  On the ensuing faceoff to Vasilevskiy’s left, T.J. Oshie won the draw to Evgeny Kuznetsov, who fed the puck across to Alex Ovechkin in the middle.  Ovechkin one-timed the puck past Vasilevskiy, and the Caps were up, 2-0, with 2.9 seconds left in the period

Numbers not to like in the first period…

  • The Caps had 11 blocked shots.  Makes that two shots on goal allowed a little less impressive in a shot attempts context.
  • Capitals not named “Beagle” were 4-for-15 on faceoffs

Second Period

The Lightning might be forgiven for being a bit shell-shocked after the events at the end of the first period, and they seemed to be in a daze when the second period opened.  The Caps took advantage of sluggish defense and a bit of luck when Dmitry Orlov did his little shake-and-bake move at the top of the right wing circle to give himself some open ice.  He fed the puck low to Brett Connolly, who shanked a shot from low in the left wing circle.  The puck slid slowly through to the crease where Jay Beagle backhanded it under the left pad of Vasilevskiy, and the Caps were up, 3-0, just 2:40 into the period.

Barely four minutes later, the Caps added another goal.  With the Caps back on a power play, the Caps worked the puck clockwise around the top of the offensive zone, from Kuznetsov to John Carlson to Ovechkin in the left wing circle.  Ovechkin’s one-timer was muffled, but the puck leaked out to the top of the crease where Lars Eller pounced, swatting the puck past a diving Vasilevskiy, and it was 4-0, 6:42 into the period.

That is where the teams ended after 40 minutes.

Third Period

Louis Domingue took over in the Lightning net for the final 20 minutes, but the danger in any game like this for the team getting out to the big lead is taking their foot off the gas.  Washington fell into the trap.  Tampa Bay dominated and converted a power play 3:45 into the period, Steven Stamkos pinching down the weak side and one-timing a feed from Nikita Kucherov behind goalie Braden Holtby to make it 4-1.

Tampa made things interesting less than ten minutes later when Ondrej Palat skated down the left side and snapped a shot past Holtby on the short side inside the post, pulling the Caps within 4-2 at the 13:03 mark.

That would be as close as the Lightning could get, though, and the Caps erased the Tampa Bay home ice advantage with a 4-2 Game 1 win.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps have not lacked for offense in the postseason.  This was the eighth time in 13 games that they recorded four or more goals.

-- Nicklas Backstrom was held out of this game with his upper-body injury, and the other top scorers filled the gap.  Alex Ovechkin (goal, assist), T.J. Oshie (two assists), and Evgeny Kuznetsov (two assists) were the multiple point getters for the Caps.

-- Michal Kempny’s goal was his first career playoff goal and his first point in the postseason since he recorded an assist (his first NHL career playoff point) in a 4-3 Caps win in Game 5 against Columbus in the first round.

-- The Caps got points from three defensemen – Kempny (goal), Dmitry Orlov (assist) and John Carlson (assist).

-- Carlson’s assist was his 12th point of the postseason, tying the franchise record for defensemen in a postseason (Kevin Hatcher and Scott Stevens in 1988 and Carlson in 2016).

-- Alex Chiasson took two penalties, the first two he has taken in the postseason.

-- Anybody have Jakub Vrana leading the team with five shots on goal?  Anybody?

-- After a rather grisly first period in the faceoff circle in which the Caps went 7-for-18 (38.9 percent), they went 20-for-32 (62.5 percent) over the last 40 minutes.

-- When the Lighting replaced starting goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy with Louis Domingue to start the third period, it marked the first time in the postseason that the Caps chased a starting goaltender.

-- Tampa Bay allowed a power play goal (two, in fact) for the eighth time in 11 postseason games.

In the end…

There are two bedrock ideas to take away from this game.  First, it is a 60 minute game, and while the Caps were utterly dominant in the first 40 minutes (aided by a brain lock by Tampa Bay to find themselves with too many men on the ice to negate a tying goal late in the first period), they took their foot off the gas in the third period.  That made for a more interesting game than folks might have thought would be the case after those first 40 minutes.  It should not be forgotten.

The other thing is, it is “first to four,” not “first to one.”  This is a game to build on, not savor.  There are things to correct, and there is much work yet to be done.  After all, Tampa Bay did drop Game 1 against Boston in the first round and roared back to sweep the next four contests. The Caps did dominate in a way that Boston did not in that second round Game 1, but Tampa remains a formidable obstacle to the Caps’ ambition.

But the Caps did do what they had to do – overcome the absence of Nicklas Backstrom to put together a fine overall effort and take the home ice advantage from the Lightning.  Not that such an advantage means much, but it is a win on the road to four that the Lightning do not have.  And that was the object of tonight’s exercise.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: 2018 Eastern Conference Final, Washington Capitals vs. Tampa Bay Lightning

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

And here we are in the rarefied air of the NHL's version of the final four.  For the Washington Capitals, it is the first trip to the conference final in 20 years and just the third such trip in 43 seasons.  Given the prospects this team were given at the start of the season, one could say that it is playing with house money at this point, that any more success would be gravy.  House money?  Gravy?  Save it.  This club does seem to be of a different breed than any over those last 20 years, but the opponent in the conference final poses a new set of challenges that will be difficult to overcome.

Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Tampa Bay Lightning (54-23-5)

Then and Now

Once upon a time, these teams shared a common division address, the “Southeast Division.”  Often derided as the "Southleast" Division, the weakest division in the NHL over the 15 years it existed, from 1998-1999 through 2012-2013, it was a division that the Caps dominated, winning the division title seven times.  Part of the Caps’ domination of the division was its record against the Tampa Bay Lightning, against which they were 53-21-8 with one tie over the years of the Southeast.

Since the league realigned for the 2013-2014 season, though, fortunes changed for the Lightning.  In five seasons in the Atlantic Division, Tampa Bay is 238-135-37, those 238 wins being fifth highest in the league over those five regular seasons.  This year, the Lightning reached the conference final for the third time in the last four seasons after posting a franchise record for wins in a regular season (54).

The change in division address and time have not changed the Caps' dominance of the Lightning.  Since the league reorganized its divisions in 2013-2014, the Caps to the Metropolitan and the Lightning to the Atlantic, the Caps have a 10-2-3 record against the Lightning in the regular season.  And over those same five years, those in which the Lightning have the fifth-highest win total in the league, the Caps have the most wins (243).

Here is a summary of the 2017-2018 season series…

And here is the scoring detail for the two clubs in their series this season…

How Caps of you to notice…

Since the Capitals last went to a conference final, in 1998 on their way to the Stanley Cup final, 25 different teams have reached a conference final.  With the Nashville Predators/Winnipeg Jets series still underway, the Caps avoided having a 26th team – Winnipeg – eligible for a conference final before they secured their position (had the Jets ended that series in five or fewer games).  Nineteen of those teams have been to multiple conference finals, and three of them have made at least five appearances in the third round (Pittsburgh (6), Anaheim (5), and Chicago (5)).

How Caps of you to notice II…

The last time that the Caps clinched a berth in a conference final was when they beat the Ottawa Senators in Game 6 of their conference semifinal series on May 15, 1998.  The number one song in the U.S. on that date was “Too Close” by Next.  Nope, don’t remember that.  What you might remember, though, was that the finale of the TV series “Seinfeld” aired on the previous night.

Feeling old, are we?

Never Ever

The Caps have never, ever beaten the Tampa Bay Lightning in a playoff series.  Okay, they’ve only met twice, the Bolts winning in six games in 2003 and then sweeping the Caps in 2011.

Never Ever II

The Caps have never beaten the Lightning in a playoff series game on home ice.  That’s right, not once.  The Caps swept two games in Tampa to open their 2003 series, and then they lost four in a row, three of them on home ice, two of them in overtime, including the famous Easter Sunday three-overtime game that the Lightning won to clinch that series.  In 2011, the Caps lost both games on home ice to open the series, and then they lost two in Tampa in the Lightning sweep.

It just doesn’t matter…

The Caps went 1-1-1 against the Lightning in the regular season.  However, all three of those meetings took place before the trading deadline, and two of them took place before the end of Thanksgiving weekend.

Singing for the Unsung

In Round 1 we had Tom Wilson, and in Round 2 we had Chandler Stephenson.  We will go out on a limb here and say Brooks Orpik.  Tampa Bay will test the Caps like neither the Columbus Blue Jackets nor Pittsburgh Penguins could, and that is with their scoring depth.  Ten Lightning forwards have goals in this postseason, and 11 have points.  There will be no hiding anyone against this team.  And that brings us to Orpik.  No Capital has more experience in conference finals than Orpik, who has appeared in 13 conference final games in his career, all of them with Pittsburgh.  That’s the good news.  The bad news is, one hopes he has a good memory.  The last of those conference final games was played in 2013.  And, lest we forget, Orpik is not – and is unlikely to be – much of an offensive contributor.  In those previous 13 conference games, Orpik has one point, an assist in the conference final against the Philadelphia Flyers in 2008.  For Orpik, it will be about what you don’t see – red lights going on behind Braden Holtby in goal.  If he is effective in his end, the Caps’ chances in this series improve dramatically.

And who might that be for Tampa Bay?

Eleven Lightning forwards have dressed for all ten games in the postseason.  Only one does not have a point.  Caps fans know him all too well.  Chris Kunitz is but a shell of the player he was in his best years as a Pittsburgh Penguin tormenting the Caps in the postseason, and the Lightning might be hoping he has one more agitation cycle left in the wash.  Kunitz has faced the Caps 20 times in the postseason, all of it as a Penguin, and he takes a scoring line of 1-9-10, plus-5 in those 20 games into this series.  But his contributions might, as they are likely to be for Brooks Orpik, of a sort not captured in the offensive statistics.  His ability to ruffle, disturb, agitate, and disrupt could be as valuable in upsetting any rhythm or pace the Caps might want to establish as the scoring contributions of a Nikita Kucherov or a Brayden Point, or a Steven Stamkos.  And, if he does contribute any offense, it would put the Caps’ hopes of advancing to the Stanley Cup final in considerable jeopardy.

Specialty of the House

The Capitals and the Lightning resemble one another on special teams in the postseason.  Their respective power plays have been formidable, the Caps ranked second overall (30.9 percent) and the Lightning ranked fourth (26.3 percent).  The penalty kill?  Not so much.  Washington is ranked eighth among the 16 teams that started the playoffs (79.1 percent), and the Lightning rank 11th (74.2 percent).

For both teams it is a continuation of the patterns they established in the regular season.  The Caps finished the regular season seventh in power play efficiency (22.5 percent) but were fourth overall in the 2018 portion of the season (25.6 percent).  For the Caps, it mattered.  Washington was 29-7-3 when scoring at least one power play goal, but they were just 20-19-4 when shut out on the man advantage.  The Lightning were solid all year with the man advantage, finishing third overall on the power play (23.9 percent).  However, there was a drop-off in the 2018 portion of the season, over which the Lightning were 14th on the power play (22.0 percent).

Both teams struggled on the penalty kill, but for Tampa Bay the numbers are a bit more ominous.  Only three teams were shorthanded more frequently than the Lightning in the regular season, and only two – Calgary and Dallas – were shorthanded more often in the 2018 portion of the season.  Neither qualified for the playoffs. Tampa has been much more disciplined in the postseason, ranking seventh in times shorthanded, but it might be something to watch.

On this score, the Caps are something of a photo-negative of the Lightning.  No team in the postseason has been shorthanded more frequently than the Caps, although on a per-game basis San Jose and Vegas have been shorthanded more frequently.  It has contributed to their allowing power play goals in multiples.  Four time so far in this postseason the Caps allowed two power play goals in a game, losing three of them, two of them in overtime.  On the other hand, Washington is 6-1 in games in which they did not allow a power play goal

You have to be this tall to ride this ride

The Capitals have had an unexpectedly significant contribution from rookies in the postseason, especially in the second round against Pittsburgh.  No team has dressed more rookies in the postseason so far than the Caps (seven).  As a group, they are 4-9-13. Five of the seven have points, and two of them – Chandler Stephenson and Jakub Vrana – are in the top ten among rookies in points in the postseason, tied for fifth with five apiece.  Vrana leads all rookies in game-winning goals (two).  These contributions might be the most unexpected, not to mention pleasant development of the postseason for the Caps.

Tampa Bay has not lacked for rookie contributions, either.  Not so much with quantity, but with quality. Only three rookies have dressed for the postseason for the Lightning, but Yanni Gourde, Mikhail Sergachev, and Anthony Cirelli all have appeared in all ten games for the Bolts so far and are a combined 5-7-12 in scoring.  Gourde (2-4-6) is tied for third in rookie scoring in the postseason and has a game-winning goal to his credit.  The contributions of Gourde and Sergachev might have been expected, given their regular season performances (Gourde had 25 goals and 64 points; Sergachev was 9-31-40).  Cirelli has been a bit of a late-season bloomer, going 5-6-11 in 18 regular season games before posting a goal and an assist so far in the postseason.

The Tender Mercies of ‘Tender Tendencies

In Round 2, we opined that the series would turn on the play of Braden Holtby.  Only Marc-Andre Fleury, among goalies playing at least three games, had a better save percentage in the second round (.934) than Holtby (.921), and his even strength save percentage was a stout .931, quite good against a club with as much offensive skill as the Penguins. Holtby will have to maintain this level of performance if the Caps are to advance further.  It could prove a challenge.  He has not faced Tampa Bay in the postseason, so there is only his regular season record against the Lightning to draw direct comparisons.  It is a decent, but not extraordinary record.  In 16 career appearances against the Lightning, Holtby is 9-3-2, 2.75, .910, with two shutouts.  However, Holtby is putting together quite a run after struggling late in the season.  In his last 15 appearances, including 11 in the playoffs, he is 11-4-0. 2.17, .925.

At the other end of the ice, Andrei Vasilevskiy seems to have broken through a wall of fatigue that plagued his game late in the season.  He was largely carried by the offense down the stretch of the regular season. Posting a win-loss record in his last 12 appearances of 7-5-0, his goals against average (3.85) and save percentage (.887) were worrisome.  However, Vasilevskiy has been a brick wall in the postseason, especially at even strength.  His .943 save percentage at evens is second best among goalies dressing for at least five games.  It isn’t a fluke.  Over the last three postseasons (in two of which Vasilevskiy participated), he has the fourth-best even strength save percentage among 21 goalies appearing in at least ten games (.935) and the fourth-best save percentage overall (.926).

Management Matters

We are in uncharted territory for Caps head coach Barry Trotz, who is making his first appearance in a conference final in his 19th NHL season as a head coach and his 11th trip to the postseason.  This is, in fact, the deepest Trotz has gone with any club since he coached the AHL Portland Pirates to the Calder Cup final in 1996 (he won a Calder Cup championship with the Pirates in 1994, his only coaching championship and the only other time he went past the second round in a postseason).  This season, though, has been different, with just about every pull on the slot machine hitting the jackpot.  His navigating the absences of top-six forwards for a large portion of the Pittsburgh series in Round 2 was impressive, including taking a hammer to his own decision to replace the suspended Tom Wilson with Devante Smith-Pelly on the top line in favor of Jakub Vrana.

As for Jon Cooper, he brings the second-longest tenure with one club into this series.  Only Joel Quenneville with the Chicago Blackhawks has been with his current team longer than Cooper, who is in his sixth season with the Lightning (he coached the last 16 games for Tampa Bay in 2012-2013).  He has the second-best regular season winning percentage among active coaches (.617), trailing only Bruce Boudreau (.654).  In five full seasons behind the Lightning bench he has the four winningest seasons in franchise history (46 wins in 2013-2014 and 2015-2016, 50 wins in 2014-2015, and 54 wins this season).  His postseason winning percentage does not quite keep pace, but it is still impressive (33-24/.579), fourth-best among active coaches.  This is his third trip to a conference final, reaching the Stanley Cup final in 2015.

The Caps will win if…

The Caps will win if they can play with structure and discipline.  If they get outside their lanes and start to freelance or do too much individually, they will end up chasing the Lightning around the rink.  At that point, the Lightning’s depth and balance will have the advantage.  For the Caps this will be a test of structure and system over talent and depth.  The Caps did a fine job of frustrating the Penguins in Round 2, all but shutting out their bottom six from making any impact.  Tampa is deeper, though, and the Caps will face a stiffer challenge in sticking closely to a game plan.

The Lightning will win if…

They can figure out a way to kill penalties.  Their penalty killing unit was one of the worst in the league in the regular season, finishing 28th (76.1 percent), second-worst of any playoff qualifier (Philadephia was 29th at 75.8 percent).  They have hardly been better in the postseason.  In fact, they have been worse at 74.2 percent, 11th of the 16 playoff teams and worst of the remaining clubs.  It matters.  Including playoff games, the Lightning are 30-10 (including three extra time losses) when shutting out opponents on the power play this season.  When allowing at least one power play goal, they are 32-20 (including two extra time losses).  They have allowed at least one power play goal in seven of ten postseason games so far.

In the end…

One might get the feeling that the Capitals are the skunk at the final four garden party.  Any of the other four clubs still alive (pending the Game 7 between Nashville and Winnipeg on Thursday night) are, quite reasonably, viewed as worthy Stanley Cup final participants.  The Caps?  This team, clearly inferior on paper to last year’s team and the team from the year before that, are pretenders, poseurs, dark horses at best.  Tampa Bay has too much firepower, too much depth, too much Kucherov and Stamkos, too much Hedman and Vasilevskiy for the Caps.  The Lightning might win this series in three games, on paper.

Or so the thinking in some quarters goes.  But this team has found a way to conquer Columbus, a gritty team with a powerful work ethic, and to prevail against the Penguins, a speedy team of skill and championship mettle.  Tampa Bay poses another challenge and a third profile, experienced, deep, and physical.  They might be a combination of the two teams that the Caps have faced so far, and that combination putting together the best aspects of the Penguins and Blue Jackets.  It makes for a challenge, but challenges present opportunities, too.  The opportunity here is to advance to the second Stanley Cup final in franchise history.  This club seems better at keeping that goal in the frame much better than any of their recent predecessors.

Capitals in six

Tuesday, May 08, 2018

Washington Capitals: On the Contributions of Youth in the Second Round

“Good habits formed at youth make all the difference.”
-- Aristotle

The Washington Capitals did something on Monday night they have not done in 20 years, clinch a spot in the NHL conference final.  They had to beat a team they had not defeated in the postseason in 20 years – the Pittsburgh Penguins – to do it. 

What might have been the most amazing part of the achievement, well, apart from actually winning the series, might have been the contributions from rookies.  The Caps dressed 21 skaters in the conference semifinal series against the Penguins, six of them rookies.  Here is how they did:

Some of the noteworthy takeaways…
  • Three of the rookies – one-sixth of a normal roster deployment – played in all six games in the second round (Vrana, Stephenson, Djoos)
  • Five of them played in the series-clinching Game 6 (all but Gersich)
  • As a group, the six of them went 3-3-6, plus-4
  • They had two game-winning goals, both by Jakub Vrana, who leads all rookies in the postseason in game-winners (two)
  • Four of them averaged more than ten minutes of ice time per game; Travis Boyd got more than 12 minutes in his only appearance, a significant contribution in Game 6 given that the Caps were missing three top-six forwards (Nicklas Backstrom, Andre Burakovsky, and Tom Wilson)
  • Stephenson was the only one to skate penalty-killing minutes, but he logged more than 10 minutes over the six games, another significant contribution
  • Vrana had a power play goal on his only power play shot and had 4:30 in man advantage ice time over the six games
  • All six were credited with hits (23 combined; Stephenson leading with ten); five of the six were credited with blocked shots (eight combined; Walker did not have one in his only appearance)
  • Four of the six had personal shot attempts-for percentages at 5-on-5 over 50 percent over the six games, the only two not to do so perhaps suffering from the number of games played (Boyd: 36.84 in one game; Gersich: 24.00 in two games).  As a group they were 50.88 percent

As the postseason proceeds to the third round, it would be a stretch, perhaps, to expect such contributions on a regular basis.  But when the Caps needed it, faced with a depleted lineup, they got them.  The performance of these six rookies and their contributions in reversing the curse of the Penguins deserves to be remembered for the significance it had.

Monday, May 07, 2018

Eastern Conference Semifinal -- Game 6: Washington Capitals 2 - Pittsburgh Penguins 1 (OT)

I'm not looking for the best players.  I'm looking for the right ones.
-- Herb Brooks in “Miracle”

Two years, two Presidents Trophies, two second-round exits.  Washington Capitals fans could be forgiven if they thought this team was not going to go as far as the two most recent editions of the Caps when the season started.  But when the final red goal light faded away in PPG Paints Arena, the Washington Capitals went further than any team since 1998, when they went to the franchise’s only Stanley Cup final.

Evgeny Kuznetsov ended the 19-year streak without an eighth playoff win for the Caps when he took a feed from Alex Ovechkin, skated between the Pittsburgh Penguin defense, kept his focus as defenseman Kris Letang desperately swept his stick at the puck, and slid the biscuit between goalie Matt Murray’s pads 5:27 into the first overtime to leave the arena in utter silence, save for the whoops of celebration as the Caps poured off the bench.

This was a throw-back game of sorts, reminiscent of the hard-fought, zone-to-zone, closely defended games of the 1990’s and early 2000’s. The teams combined for only 13 shots on goal in the first period without either team rustling the twine.  The Caps broke the ice early in the second period when Nathan Walker, playing in his first career NHL playoff game, beat Derick Brassard to the puck down the left wing wall, skated in around the back of the Penguin net, and fed Alex Chiasson in the right wing circle for a one-timer that snuck between Murray’s left arm and the near post at the 2:13 mark of the period.

Pittsburgh tied it almost ten minutes later when Sidney Crosby beat Lars Eller cleanly on a faceoff from the right wing circle, Brian Dumoulin collecting the puck and feeding Letang for a one-timer 11:52 into the period.

And that was all the scoring in regulation.  The Caps dominated the extra session, recording five shots on goal to two for the Penguins before the final scoring sequence.  And when the Caps stood tall at their own blue line to disrupt a Penguin entry into the offensive zone, when Ovechkin collected a loose puck at his own blue line and fed it up to Kuznetsov, and when Kuznetsov calmly, deliberately, deftly slipped the puck between Murray’s pads, it was off to the third round for the Capitals and an end to the Penguin hopes for a third consecutive Stanley Cup.

Other stuff…

-- The Caps were missing three top-six forwards (Andre Burakovsky, Tom Wilson, and Nicklas Backstrom), forced to rely on Alex Chiasson, Travis Boyd, and Nathan Walker to skate limited, but important minutes.  Only Boyd finished with more than ten minutes of ice time (12:12), but the trio did combine for four shots on goal, six shot attempts, were a combined plus-2, had four hits, and won a combined seven of 11 draws.

-- Posts figured for each team.  T.J. Oshie hit the post in the first period for the Caps, and Tom Kuhnackl found iron for the Pens in the overtime.

-- This is the first 2-1 overtime win for the Caps in Pittsburgh in team history.  It is the 11th time that the Caps went to overtime in Steel City in the postseason, the Caps now with a 4-7 record in such games.

-- For Boyd and Walker, it was for each their first career NHL postseason game, and Walker’s assist was the first for an Australian player in league history.

-- The Caps had two penalty minutes in this contest.  It is the seventh time in team history that the Caps had two or fewer penalty minutes in a game.  They now have a record of 6-1 in those games.  The only team they lost two… Pittsburgh, 3-1, in 1992.  It is the Caps sixth straight win in such situations.

-- Matt Niskanen skate almost 30 minutes (29:38), and while he did not have a point, he had a shot on goal, four shot attempts, three hits, and a blocked shot.

-- Alex Ovechkin brought the intensity.  He did not have a goal, but he had the primary assist on the series-clinching goal, five shots on goal, 11 shot attempts, seven hits, and a takeaway.

-- John Druce, Brian Bellows, Joe Juneau, Marcus Johansson, Dale Hunter, Joel Ward… and now, Evgeny Kuznetsov.  Players in Caps history to clinch a series with a game-winning goal in overtime.

-- The Caps finished with a shots advantage of 30-22 and a shot attempts advantage of 62-52, two areas with which they struggled against this team in the past.

-- This was the 11th time in his career that Braden Holtby played a full game and faced 22 or fewer shots (he faced 22 tonight).  He lifted his record in those 11 games to 7-4.

In the end…

The last two seasons, the Caps had better teams on paper than the once they iced to start this series against the Penguins.  By the time Game 6 came around, the Caps were short three top-six forwards, and both Evgeny Kuznetsov and Alex Ovechkin suffered injuries (albeit not of a debilitating nature, of course) during this game.  Braden Holtby, who had magical seasons in the two seasons coming into this one, struggled down the stretch and was benched in favor of Philipp Grubauer to start the postseason.  The defense, even when at full strength, had holes.  Barry Trotz had his own coaching demons, not having reached a third round as an NHL head coach. 

But this team, perhaps more than any other in franchise history, including the Stanley Cup run, persevered, put the rough spots behind them, and fought through adversity against a team that has done more to disappoint Capitals Nation than any team in the last 30 years.

Sometimes, it isn’t having the best players, but having the right ones, as Herb Brooks put it in the movie, “Miracle.”  In this series, and in this game, the Caps had the right players indeed.

Photo: Joe Sargent/NHLI via Getty Images

Saturday, May 05, 2018

Eastern Conference Semifinal -- Game 5: Washington Capitals 6 - Pittsburgh Penguins 3


“Deep breath”

“Calm down”

That was Braden Holtby after the Washington Capitals defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins, 6-3, to take a 3-2 lead in their Eastern Conference semifinal series.  Holtby was a tower of strength for the Caps in the face of a scoring chance onslaught by the Pens, but he had a lot of help.

Pittsburgh opened the scoring on Jamie Olesiak’s first goal of the postseason barely two minutes into the game.  It was a one-timer from long range that appeared to be redirected on route to the net. 

The thin lead for the Pens almost survived the period.  Almost.  The Caps knotted the score with less than two minutes left on a power play.  T.J. Oshie fought off a double team to keep a loose puck alive along the right wing boards.  Evgeny Kuznetsov stepped up to lend support, scooping the puck back and sliding it to John Carlson at the right point.  The new dad walked the puck to the middle and let fly with a shot that goalie Matt Murray waved at with his glove but could not snare.  Carlson’s goal tied things up at 18:22. 

The tie lasted 35 seconds.  Jakub Vrana emerged from a scrum along the left wing boards and fed Brett Connolly, who slid into the high slot and snapped a shot that was deflected by Patric Hornqvist and through Murray’s five-hole to give the Caps their first lead 18:55 into the period.

The second period started with the Caps wearing a path to the penalty box.  Alex Ovechkin took a slashing penalty 4:24 into the period, and Devante Smith-Pelly went off on a tripping call at the 6:57 mark.  Pittsburgh scored on both power plays, Sidney Crosby getting his nine goal of the postseason on the first power play and Hornqvist putting the Pens in front at the 7:46 mark on the second man advantage.  The 3-2 lead for the Pens held up going into the second intermission.

The demons that haunt this arena were hanging from the rafters at the start of the third period, waiting for the Caps to fold.  They were disappointed.  Evgeny Kuznetsov took a stretch feed from new top-linemate Jakub Vrana, broke in alone on Murray, and slid the puck between his pads to tie the game just 52 seconds into the period.

For almost 15 minutes, it looked more and more as if the teams would have to settle this contest in overtime.  Vrana put an end to that thinking, or at least pushed it aside, when he took a slick feed from behind the net by Alex Ovechkin and snapped a puck into what was a vacant net with Murray out of position defending Ovechkin.  The Caps had the lead for good 15:22 into the period.

The Caps, or rather Holtby, clamped down from there, and Oshie and Lars Eller added empty net goals to send Caps fans off to the steps of the National Portrait Gallery to celebrate the 6-3 win.

Other stuff…

-- Going into this game, Pittsburgh was 27-4 when scoring first in the postseason over the last three seasons, 31-6 when leading after two periods. That is now 27-5 and 31-7.

-- Jakub Vrana had a goal and two assists, making him the fifth Caps player to record three or more points in a game in this postseason.  The others are Nicklas Backstrom (twice), John Carlson (twice), Evgeny Kuznetsov (twice, including this game), and Lars Eller.

-- Speaking of Backstrom, he appeared to block a shot with his right hand.  He took only three faceoffs in the contest, and he missed most of the third period, finishing with just 15:55 in ice time.  The team will have more to say about his condition on Sunday.

-- Lars Eller had a goal and an assist for his third career multi-point playoff game with the Caps.  All of them have come against Pittsburgh, all on home ice.

-- Alex Ovechkin had three shots on goal in the first 10:00 of the game.  He did not have another over the last 50:00.

-- T.J. Oshie gets the coupon for the all-you-can eat buffet.  A goal, an assists, two points, plus-2, four shots, six shot attempts, a hit, two takeaways, and four draws taken in 21:12 in ice time.

-- The Caps did have shot balance.  They had 32 shots on goal, but no Cap had more than four (Carlson, Oshie).

-- Brett Connolly did not have a goal in any of his first 14 career playoff games.  His goal tonight gives him two in his last four games.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov stepped up in a quiet way.  Not normally a very efficient faceoff performer, he won six of ten in the offensive zone and his only defensive zone draw. With Nicklas Backstrom unable to take draws and out for most of the third period, it helped.

-- Here is an odd Braden Holtby stat.  This was the 12th time in his career he faced at least 39 shots in a game, only the third in which the game was settled in regulation.  Nevertheless, he has never lost such a game in regulation time.  He now has six wins and six overtime losses in such games.

In the end…

If the Caps should go on to win this series, this game will take on an aura of legend.  That is not an overstatement.  After losing a game in which they could have taken a stranglehold on this series in Pittsburgh in Game 4, no one would have been surprised if the Caps went quick and quiet, especially with two top-six forwards (Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky) out of the lineup.  With the Caps playing a short bench (Alex Chiasson and Shane Gersich finished with less than ten minutes for the game, and Nicklas Backstrom was out with an injury sustained earlier in the game), they still came back from a goal down after 40 minutes to overtake a team that has given them fits, often on this ice sheet.

The Caps did it with balanced scoring, a big contribution from a young guy, and a memorable performance from their goaltender.  If the Caps are still short three top-six forwards in Game 6 on Monday night, they will need to mix the same formula to ensure that the next game at Capital One Arena is Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final.