Thursday, May 31, 2018

Washington Capitals: Word Association - The Caps are Like... A Hamburger

The 2017-2018 Capitals are like a hamburger.  Hear me out.  You see a lot of places these days offering gourmet burgers on their menus.  You know the ones…it’s locally sourced wagyu beef patties, truffles, artisan gouda cheese, applewood smoked bacon from free-range pigs, heirloom tomatoes, pate, baby greens, garlic-chipotle aioli…all the best of ingredients.

And you order it in anticipation of it being the best damned burger you’ve ever had…maybe the best damned burger in the history of burgers.

But somehow, when you get it, it’s good, but in the end…well, not quite as good as you thought it would be.  Certainly not the "'Presidents Trophy' good" you thought you were getting.  Maybe the ingredients are individually good, but they just don’t quite work together.  

But that burger you had on your own grill, just a simple burger, a slice of tomato from your garden, just some salt and pepper, maybe a slice of American cheese.  Good ingredients, good stuff…a burger you can sink your teeth into and be surprised just how good it is.

Sometimes, it not the “best’ ingredients…it’s the “right” ingredients, put together and prepared the right way, that in the end can be the most satisfying and, in the end, the best.

Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Stanley Cup Final -- Game 2: Washington Capitals 3 - Vegas Golden Knights 2

The Washington Capitals played as gritty a game as they have ever mustered in the postseason in Game 2 of their series against the Vegas Golden Knights.  They were rewarded for their effort with a hard-fought 3-2 win over the Knights to bring the series back to Washington tied at a game apiece.

First Period

Vegas had the shots advantage early, and in the eighth minute they took the advantage on the scoreboard.  Luca Sbisa chipped the puck high out of the defensive zone from just behind his own blue line.  Caps defenseman Dmitry Orlov tried to glove it down, but he might have been distracted with James Neal poking his stick into his chest.  The puck bounced free and away from Orlov, Neal picked it up, and a snap shot from the left wing circle past goalie Braden Holtby later, and it was 1-0, Knights, 7:58 into the period.

The lead almost lasted to the first intermission.  However, with less than three minutes to go in the opening frame, the scoring play for the Caps started with a gritty faceoff effort.  Lars Eller tied up Erik Haula, and Andre Burakovsky dug out the loose puck from under them.  Burakovsky pulled the puck back from a Vegas defender and slid it across to Michal Kempny at the top of the left wing circle.  Kempny stepped up and showed “shot,” but he sent the puck across to Eller in the right wing circle.  Eller was left with a wide-open net at which to shoot, and he did not miss, tying the game at the 17:27 mark.

After a slow start in which the Caps were outshot, 8-3, early, they finished the period with a 11-10 edge in shots and a 16-14 advantage in shot attempts.

Second Period

The teams traded power plays in the early part of the period, Brooks Oprik going to the penalty box 2:04 into the period on an illegal check to the head call, and Alex Tuch heading off on a cross-checking call at the 5:13 mark.  Washington killed the Orpik penalty; Vegas did not kill the Tuch call.  The Caps converted on some deft passing.  From the top of the right wing circle, Nicklas Backstrom slid the puck low to Lars Eller, who one-timed a pass through the blue paint and under goalie Marc-Andre Fleury’s stick to Alex Ovechkin, who one timed it into the open side of the net.  The Caps had their first lead, 2-1, 5:38 into the period.

The Caps extended their lead four minutes later, courtesy of the least likely member of either team to rustle the twine.  Lars Eller took a pass from Andre Burakovsky just outside the Vegas blue line and curled into the offensive zone.  As Eller was cutting to the middle, Brooks Orpik filled in behind him.  Eller pulled a pass across his body to Orpik on his right.  Orpik flicked a shot at the net that hit Vegas’ Alex Tuch in the arm, bounced off the ice, hit the post, and banked in behind Fleury to make it 3-1, 9:41 into the period.

The two-goal advantage almost lasted through the end of the period, but T.J. Oshie took an interference call with under three minutes left in the frame.  On the Knights’ power play, Shea Theodore fired a shot through a maze of players, and the puck snuck through, eluding goalie Breaden Holtby’s glove to make it 3-2, just 2:13 before the intermission.

Vegas had the offensive advantage in the period, outshooting the Caps, 14-9, and out-attempting them, 23-13.

Third Period

If fire wagon hoickey was your thing, the third period had little for you.  If you enjoy the chess match aspects of the game, you were spellbound.  Vegas outshot the Caps, 15-6, and they enjoyed 1:08 of 5-on-3 power play time, but they could not pierce the Caps defense or solve Braden Holtby in goal  Holtby stopped all 15 shots, and the Caps held on for the 3-2 win.

Other stuff…

-- May 30, 2018… The franchise’s first Stanley Cup final game win.

-- Lars Eller’s goal was his sixth of the postseason, setting a career high.  It topped the five goals he recorded in 17 postseason games for Montreal in 2014.  It was his 14th point in this postseason, tying the career high he set with the Canadiens in that same 2014 season.

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov skated 4:26 on six shifts in the first period before going off with an injury.  He did not return.

-- Alex Ovechkin scored his first Stanley Cup final goal in his 118th career postseason game.  It was his 13th of the playoffs, extending his career high for a single postseason.

-- Orpik’s goal broke a 55-game postseason drought without one, since he scored in a 4-3 Pittsburgh Penguins win over the Columbus Blue Jackets in Game 3 of their series in 2014.  The goal was the game-winner, Orpik’s second career game-winning goal among the three postseason goals he has.  The other game-winner came against the New York Islanders in overtime, a series-clinching 4-3 win for the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 6 of their 2013 series against the Isles.

-- Eller continued his hot scoring pace.  With a goal and two assists he recorded his third three-point game of this postseason and third in his last 14 games in this postseason.

-- Andre Burakovsky had his second multi-point game (0-2-2) in his last three appearances.

-- Braden Holtby stopped the last 16 shots he faced, no save bigger than a paddle save on an Alex Tuch shot with 1:59 left in regulation and the Caps nursing that one-goal lead.  If the Caps should win this series, that will be the biggest save in the history of the franchise.

-- The Caps finished the game with 46 credited hits, three Caps with six apiece: Lars Eller, Tom Wilson, and Brooks Orpik.

-- T.J. Oshie took a penalty that put the Caps in a bind late in the second period, one that led to the second Vegas goal, but he also had four blocked shots to lead the team.

In the end…

What Caps fans saw tonight was what they have seen all too often in the past, a goalie flat out stealing a game.  The odd thing was that it was the Caps goalie – Braden Holtby – who was committing grand larceny with 37 saves on 39 shots faced.  But it was an all-hands effort, too.  Fourteen skaters had hits, 12 had blocked shots, and six different players had points.  And at the other end, they have made Marc-Andre Fleury look beatable.  He has allowed three or more goals in consecutive games for the first time since the San Jose series and in consecutive games in regulation on home ice for the just second time in these playoffs.

You could say that the Caps have swiped home-ice advantage in this series as it moves to Capital One Arena for Games 3 and 4, but home ice seems to matter less in hockey than in any other team sport.  It means that the Caps have to maintain their focus on the details.  If they can do that, home ice will take care of itself.

Friday, May 25, 2018

The Peerless Prognosticator Brings You: The 2018 Stanley Cup Final, Washington Capitals vs. Vegas Golden Knights

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

On Monday night, two teams that have never won a Stanley Cup will embark on what could be a 16-day trek on the final leg of their respective journeys to a championship.  Only one will reach that destination.  For the long-suffering Washington Capitals and barely-out-of-the-box Vegas Golden Knights, it is an unexpected turn, neither team on many short lists of championship contenders as the season began in October. 

But neither can be said to be a fluke entry in this Stanley Cup final.  The Capitals fought through an upstart foe in the Columbus Blue Jackets, vanquished their perennial nemesis in the Pittsburgh Penguins, and then disposed of the team with the best record in the Eastern Conference in the Tampa Bay Lightning.  Meanwhile, the Golden Knights swept through the first three rounds losing only three games along the way.

Washington Capitals (49-26-7)
Vegas Golden Knights (51-24-7)

Then and Now

There is not a lot of history for the Caps this deep into the postseason.  But one thing does stand out.  Through three rounds, the 1998 Capitals – the only other Caps team to reach the finals – were a team much more dependent on top-notch goaltending than this year’s.  Not that Braden Holtby has been bad in goal for this club.  His 12-6, 2.04, .923, two shutout line compares favorably with almost any other goalie in the postseason.  He ranks second among 11 goalies appearing in at least five games in goals against average, third in save percentage, second in even strength save percentage, and he is tied for second in shutouts.  But back in 1998, Olaf Kolzig dragged the team to the finals on his back, taking the league’s best goals against average (1.69), best save percentage (.946), and biggest shutout total (four) into the final round.

This Capitals club is a much more productive club offensively than that 1998 version.  Both Alex Ovechkin (12) and Evgeny Kuznetsov (11) have more goals than the leader of that 1998 squad through three rounds (Sergei Gonchar with seven), and five Capitals have more points at this stage than the Caps’ leader through three rounds in 1998 (Adam Oates with 14).  This club even spreads the clutch goals around more liberally.  Eight players on this year’s squad have game-winning goals, four of them with two apiece.  In 1998 there were seven players with game-winners through three rounds, but Joe Juneau had four of the 12 deciding goals.

On special teams, the difference, at least with respect to the power play, largely reflects the differences in era.  This year’s team ranks second in power play efficiency, not much different from the third-ranked team through three rounds in 1998.  But where the 1998 third-ranked team had a 17.9 percent rate with the man advantage, this year’s team is clicking at a 28.9 percent rate.  Where this year’s club comes up short compared to the 1998 club is in penalty killing, the 1998 squad ranked fourth through three rounds (87.9 percent), while this year’s club is ranked tenth (75.4 percent).

For Vegas, there is no “then,” only “now.”  But there is a brief history between these clubs.  The bad news is that the Caps lost both games played against the Golden Knights this season.  In the first one, they were almost run out of T-Mobile Arena in the first 15 minutes of their matchup two days before Christmas in Las Vegas, allowing three goals while failing to convert on either of the power play chances they had in the first five minutes of the game.  Vegas prevailed, 3-0.  The Caps lost the home rematch in early February, taking a one-goal lead three times in the contest before Vegas tied the game for the third time mid-way through the third period, and then winning it on a late goal from Alex Tuch, who also had the game-winner in the December Vegas win.   Here is a summary of the season series:

And here is the scoring detail for the two clubs in the season series:

How Caps of you to notice…

The first win the Caps post in this series will be their first Stanley Cup final win in team history.  They were swept by the Detroit Red Wings in four games in the 1998 final, their only other appearance.

How Caps of you to notice II…

Esa Tikkanen appeared in 165 postseason games and was a member of five Stanley Cup champions before he arrived in Washington late in the 1997-1998 season.  He scored 69 goals for four different teams in the postseason before he pulled on the teal and bronze Capitals sweater in the playoffs.  He even scored three goals for the Caps in his lone postseason with the club.  But he will be forever remembered for the shot that didn’t go in.  With the Caps nursing a 4-3 lead mid-way through third period of Game 2 in Detroit and looking to tie the series at a game apiece, Tikkanen had the puck and perhaps the game on his stick when he broke in alone on goalie Chris Osgood.  When Tikkanen deked Osgood to the ice and pulled the puck around the sprawled goalie, he had an entirely open net at which to shoot.  He slid the puck behind Osgood and…wide to the far side.  Instead of taking a two-goal lead in the Red Wing’s building, the Caps were left deflated and surrendered the tying goal off a turnover late in the third period, losing the contest in overtime on a Kris Draper goal.  The Caps went on to lose the series in a four-game sweep.  Whether coincidence or not, Tikkanen is the last native of Finland to appear in a postseason game for the Caps.

Never ever

The Caps have never played a postseason game outside the Eastern time zone, Detroit being as far west as they ever played a playoff game.

Never ever II…

The Caps have never scored first in a Stanley Cup final game.  In each of the four games against the Red Wings in 1998, the Wings scored the game’s first goal. 

Never ever III…

The Caps have never scored a first period goal in a Stanley Cup final game. 

It just doesn’t matter…

None of that 1998 crap matters.  None of it.

Singing for the Unsung

In the three rounds played so far we had Tom Wilson, Chandler Stephenson, and Brooks Orpik.  This time around we are going with the idea of a player who can “fight fire with fire,” or more accurately, “fight speed with speed.”  That brings us to Jakub Vrana.  At this point it is all about the games played when it comes to statistical leaders, but still, Vrana is sixth among rookies in points in the postseason (six).  He has shown an absence of bashfulness in shooting the puck, his 29 shots on goal tied for second among rookies in the playoffs, and his shot attempts-for on ice at 5-on-5 is sixth among rookies.  Half of his six points came in the Caps’ 6-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 5 of their conference semi-final series, but that performance might be an indicator of what Vrana is capable of when he is on his game.  What he has not yet done is express his considerable offensive talent in road games in the postseason.  Over two seasons he is 0-1-1, plus-2, in ten road playoff games.  If he can find a way to put Vegas on their heels using his speed and offensive tool set, it might be just the thing to give the Caps some relief from the “play fast” Golden Knights at the other end.

And who might that be for Vegas?

Jonathan Marchessault and William Karlsson generally do the heavy lifting when it comes to goal scoring for the Golden Knights.  But in their midst is a rookie who has more than held his own as a contributor.  Alex Tuch gets comparatively less attention, but there he is with six playoff goals, tied with Karlsson for second on the team behind Marchessault (eight).  Tuch is the quintessential Vegas rookie.  Drafted 18th overall by the Minnesota Wild in 2014, he spent two years with Boston College in the NCAA before turning pro.  He was called up to the parent club in 2016-2017 for six games (no points, minus-3), but in June 2017, he was traded to the Golden Knights for a conditional third round draft pick.   It was not as simple as that, though.  Tuch was “conditional” in another sense.  Minnesota wanted the Golden Knights to stay clear of taking any of their defensemen in the expansion draft, so Vegas ended up taking forward Erik Haula on the condition of the Wild offering up Tuch for what would be a third-round pick.  It worked out for Vegas.  Tuch finished tied for 14th in goals and points among rookies in the regular season.  He had four game-winning goals for the Golden Knights, two of them coming in the two wins over Washington.

And now, for something a little different...

With two teams left of the 31 that started the season in October and of the 16 that started this postseason, this is now a matchup duel.  So, how do the teams matchup?

Forwards:  There are narratives attached to the forwards of these teams that do not quite fit.  For Vegas, there is the idea of plucky castoffs scooped up by the genius general manager who have somehow, against all odds, cobbled together a fine body of work.  Well, let’s back up.  Castoffs?  In nine seasons before this one, James Neal had never recorded fewer than 21 goals, and that came in the abbreviated 2012-2013 season in which he played in just 40 games.  He had 25 goals in 71 games this season.   Jonathan Marchessault recorded 30 goals for Florida last season in what was his first full season in the NHL.  He had 27 goals this season.  Reilly Smith averaged 18 goals over four seasons before going to Vegas.  He had 22 this season.  Okay, William Karlsson was something of a surprise, a second-round draft pick of Anaheim who managed only 18 goals in 183 games with the Ducks and the Columbus Blue Jackets.  He exploded for 43 goals this season and was a league-high plus-49.  These guys might not be well known, but it is not as if they didn’t have a decent body of work before landing in the desert.

The Caps are looked at as a “skill” group of individual flair and creativity that puts up big offensive numbers in the regular season, but not so much when the flowers bloom in the spring.  Evgeny Kuznetsov might have one of the most complete offensive skill sets in the league, but in three postseasons before this one he was just 11-8-19 in 39 playoff games.  Nicklas Backstrom is on a very short list of best playmakers in the game, a list that might include Backstrom, Sidney Crosby, and … well, that might be it (ok, Joe Thornton, too).  But in six postseasons preceding this one, he was just 14-31-45 in 68 games.  Alex Ovechkin has a hall of fame plaque waiting for him, but he was also the answer to an odd trivia question – How many players in NHL history scored 600 or more regular season goals with one team without winning a Stanley Cup?  There is Ovechkin and… T.J. Oshie had a reputation in St. Louis as being a player whose production shriveled in the spring (5-4-9 in 30 playoff games).  Andre Burakovsky had yet to fulfill his considerable promise in the postseason (6-4-10 in 36 games before this season).  But this postseason, Kuznetsov leads the league in points (24) and currently has a franchise-record ten-game playoff points streak, Ovechkin is second in goals (12), Backstrom is averaging more than a point per playoff game for the first time since he had nine points in seven games in 2010 despite a hand injury, Oshie has a career high of seven goals in a single postseason (eclipsing his five postseason, 30 game total in St. Louis), and Burakovsky came up huge in perhaps the franchise’s most important game ever with two goals in the series clinching 4-0 win over Tampa Bay that sent the Caps to this final series.

But forwards for both teams have bought into playing a disciplined sort of style that puts pressure on their opponents. Vegas does it with a swarming forecheck to create turnovers, while the Caps do it with a more deliberate approach to suppress shots, but how both put pressure on opponents in their own zone is a key ingredient of their success.  Which group has an advantage might turn on how much more Backstrom can recover with his hand injury before the series starts on Monday night.

Advantage: Even

Defense: Both teams have rather solid top-four performers on the back end and issues with their third pairs.  Vegas has offensive balance among Shea Theodore (2-5-7, plus-5), Nate Schmidt (2-4-6, plus-7), Brayden McNabb (2-3-5, plus-4), and Colin Miller (2-1-3, plus-7).  Luca Sbisa has added points in the last two games against Winnipeg to send Vegas to the final, but he has been injured intermittently all season, including a 23-game stretch (undisclosed) that straddled the end of the regular season and beginning of the playoffs.  One does wonder, though, whether there is a vulnerability here in a group in which the defenseman with the second highest average ice time in the postseason (Deryk Engelland) is a somewhat unremarkable journeyman in his ninth season with his third team, never having averaged 20 minutes a game in the regular season until this year.

For the Caps, ice time tells quite a bit.  Three defenseman are averaging more than 20 minutes a game at even strength: the Matt Niskanen (21:58)/Dmitry Orlov (21:44) pair, and John Carlson (20:25).  After that, the even strength ice time falls off quite a bit until you get to Michal Kempny (17:26).  The minutes of third pair of Brooks Orpik (13:50) and Christian Djoos (11:12) suggest that the Caps are going to be looking to shelter them and seek favorable matchups, a hard thing to do with a team as balanced as Vegas.  But the Caps do get contributions on offense from the group.  All seven defensemen to have dressed for the Caps this spring have points (including Jakub Jerebek in only two games), and four of them have points.  The odd part about the offense is that John Carlson, who leads the team with 16 points overall, is just third in even strength points (six), trailing both Niskanen and Orlov (eight apiece). Three Caps defensemen have more points (Carlson, Niskanen, Orlov) than the top Golden Knight defenseman (Theodore: eight points).

Advantage: Capitals

Goaltender:  This series might turn on which Marc-Andre Fleury shows up for the Golden Knights.  The prevailing themes concerning Fleury are that: one, he is a Conn Smythe Trophy winner in waiting, virtually assured of the trophy as playoff most valuable player if the Golden Knights win and a contender even if they lose; and second, that his chances for the Smythe (and Vegas’ to win the Cup) are enhanced by his owning the Caps in his postseason career.  As to the first point, yes, he is the Smythe frontrunner at this point.  He leads all goalies (five games minimum) in goals against average (1.68, a career best), save percentage (.947, a career best), even strength percentage (.956), shorthanded save percentage (.902), and shutouts (four, a career high).  He allowed just six goals to the Winnipeg Jets (a .956 save percentage) after dropping the series opener to lead Vegas into the final. 

Then there is the “owns the Caps” narrative.  It is one of those “facts” that gets swept up into a larger narrative (the Penguins own the Caps) but does not bear close scrutiny.  First, you would think that there is a long history here.  No, there isn’t.  Fleury has faced the Caps only 14 times in the postseason over two series (2009 and 2017; Matt Murray has 12 appearances over two series, in 2016 and 2018).  Second, he has not been dominating in those appearances.  His win-loss record is just 8-6, a pair of seven-game series wins to his credit.  And, his performance numbers against the Caps – a 2.80 goals against average and a .902 save percentage – are not particularly impressive.  The question becomes one of whether the Fleury with the hot streak in this postseason shows up, or if the one with the less-impressive-than-commonly-assumed record against the Caps appears.

For the Caps, Braden Holtby being “Holtbeast” could not have come at a better time.  If Fleury is the star of this postseason among goalies, Holtby is not far behind.  He is second among goalies (five games minimum) in goals against average (2.04) and is third in save percentage (.923).  He became the first goaltender in more than 80 years to pitch shutouts in consecutive elimination games without one in the season to that point to bring the Caps to the final.  He appears to regained his place among the best postseason goalies of the last 30 years.  Among 71 goalies appearing in at least 25 games over that period, only Patrick Lalime has a better goals against average (1.77 in 41 games) than Holtby (2.01 in 77 games), and only Tim Thomas has a better save percentage (.933 in 51 games) than Holtby (.930).

What might be especially important about this series is how Holtby thrives in the face of high shot volumes.  In 20 career postseason games in which he faced more than 35 shots on goal, he is 12-8, 1.57, .946.  He has won his last nine postseason appearances when facing at least 30 shots on goal.

Advantage: even

Special Teams: The good news for the Washington Capitals is that they have an extremely efficient and effective power play.  Their 28.8 percent conversion rate is second in the postseason, and their 17 goals scored on the man advantage is tops in the league.  The bad news is that they do not get a lot of chances to deploy that power play.  While their 59 power play chances lead the league, it works out to only 3.1 chances per game.  But back to the good news.  The Caps’ power play has been consistent in an important respect.  They are the only team to be a top-five power play team both at home (28.1 percent/fourth) and on the road (29.6 percent/third).

On the other side, the Vegas power play has been unremarkable in the postseason (17.6 percent/10th of 16 teams).  And that performance is made even weaker by their having recorded a third of their power play goals in the postseason in a single game, three of them in a 7-0 win over the San Jose Sharks in Game 1 of their second-round series.  This is where the Golden Knights do not get significant contributions from their blue line.  Colin Miller does have two goals for the defense, but only Shea Theodore among the rest has as much as a point (an assist).  They have had particular struggles on the road where, despite having the fourth-highest number of chances (23), they have only three goals (13.0 percent/14th).  They have one goal on 12 chances (8.3 percent) in their last five games on the road. 

Washington’s penalty killers overall impress no one.  Their 75.4 percent penalty kill ranks 10th among the 16 teams.  The trick for the Caps is in limiting opportunities.  In the nine games in which the Caps limited their opponent to three or fewer power plays, they are 16-for-18 (88.9 percent) and have a record of 6-3.  That eight of those nine games came against Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh, two formidable offensive teams, had to be a factor in the Caps advancing.  But where the Caps have struggled in particular has been at home.  Their 71.9 percent penalty kill ranks 14th of 16 teams.  And, having suffered 32 shorthanded situations at home in the postseason (most in the league), it is going to be something to pay attention to as the series moves to DC.

On the other hand, Vegas has been efficient and consistent.  Their 82.5 percent penalty kill ranks fourth overall, despite averaging 3.8 shorthanded situations per game over 15 postseason contests.  Their consistency is reflected in the small differences between their home penalty kill (82.1 percent/6th) and that on the road (82.8 percent/5th).  They seem to have a higher tolerance for penalty killing frequency than the Caps.  Vegas is 10-1 when facing four or fewer shorthanded situations.

Advantage: even

Coaches: Washington’s Barry Trotz has an overwhelming advantage in postseason experience compared to that of his counterpart, Gerard Gallant.  Trotz comes into this series having been head coach for 108 games in his career, 22nd all-time in the NHL and fifth among coaches currently employed in the league.  On the other side, Gallant comes into this series with 21 games of postseason head coaching experience, 15 with this year’s Golden Knights and six with Florida in 2016.

Despite the disparity in experience, both coaches are (as one would expect in the context of a final) to be a good fit of individual personality to team character.  Gallant installed a “play fast” concept with the Golden Knights that took advantage of their balance and mitigated their lack of elite skill.  He has successfully teased out the maximum in terms of full-team contributions.  Trotz has had to deal with losses in personnel, inconsistency in performance among some youngsters, and the loudly ticking clocks on the careers of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.  He successfully kept the club from devolving into underachieving soap opera and, quite to the contrary, pulled the strings in the right order and tension to get this club to play better as a whole than the sum of its parts.  Both coaches seem to have mastered the art of timing as each club seems to be peaking as they head into this series, Vegas with 12 wins in 15 games, and the Caps vanquishing two teams thought by most to be better in Pittsburgh and Tampa Bay.  If there is a difference here, it is that Trotz has dealt with more tension (more from those out the outside looking in) and adversity with this club than Gallant has had with his and done so successfully.

Advantage: Washington

Intangibles: Vegas is the feel good story.  First year team goes to the championship round.  We’ll admit to wearing “Rock the Red” colored glasses, but we’re trying to figure out what the “feel-good” part of this is as a hockey matter.  It is an interesting story, an odd story given the history of expansion teams in pro sports in general, but what about their season on the ice should make anyone feel good?  As for the team itself, there is no pressure, and no pressure is the best pressure.  Vegas can go out and do what they do, which has been most impressive in the postseason.  They just keep winning, and despite the numbers and the fancystats and the algorithms, that is all that counts.

Washington’s story is richer and more complex.  Having once fielded the worst team of all time in the NHL (the 1974-1975 club likely to keep that claim until the sun goes dark), the history ever since has been one of a team that just can’t seem to break through, haunted by demons – the Islanders in the 1980’s, the Penguins in the 1990’s and 2000’s.  Add to that the long narrative arc of Alex Ovechkin’s career – the child prodigy, the effervescent star, the perceived underachieving playoff performer, the graying freak of nature pursuing a championship in the autumn of his career – and the long drought in DC big-four sports of getting within a time zone of a championship over the last 25 years (except for the Caps’ run to the final in 1998), and there are no shortages of intangibles on which the Caps can draw.

Advantage: Washington

The Caps will win if…

They can stay out of the box.  Their possession numbers (shot attempts-for percentage overall) are not significantly different (49.78 percent) than Vegas (50.37 percent).  On the other hand, the Caps lead the league in 5-on-5 goals in the postseason (39) and are a plus-10 in 5-on-5 goals for/goals against.  They will also need the contributions from personnel down the roster. Players like Devante Smith-Pelly, Brett Connolly, or Jay Beagle don't have to chip in a lot, but they do have to chip in from time to time, as they did in the first three rounds.

Vegas will win if…

The 2018 playoff Marc-Andre Fleury is the one that shows up, not the unremarkable one that has faced the Caps 14 times in the postseason.  This is almost certainly the most influential variable on this series.  Who wins depends on which Fleury suits up.  But keep this in mind.  Fleury's numbers look suspiciously like those of Olaf Kolzig going into the 1998 final -- utterly dominant.  Things did not end well for Kolzig in the final.  Fleury can call on much more experience than could Kolzig in 1998, but the point is that things can turn quickly.

In the end…

Vegas probably beat better teams in San Jose and Winnipeg to reach the final; the Caps faced sterner tests in facing down their ultimate nemesis in the Penguins and a team they had never beaten in the postseason in Tampa Bay (albeit in only two series).  The story lines abound in this series, from individual players (like Fleury and Ovechkin) to two coaches appearing in the first final for each to the front office where old college teammates (Brian MacLellan and George McPhee of Bowling Green State University) are on opposite sides of the divide.  It is not hyperbole to say that on the eve of its commencement, this is the most compelling final series in recent memory. 

Capitals in six

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Eastern Conference Final -- Game 7: Washington Capitals 4 - Tampa Bay Lightning 0

Washington Capitals
Eastern Conference Champions

For the second time in the history of the franchise, that phrase can be uttered.  The Washington Capitals punched their ticket to the Stanley Cup final with a 4-0 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on Wednesday night, a performance that will go down in franchise history as perhaps the most dominant in a playoff game, ever.

First Period

The Capitals served notice early that it would be a long night for the host team.  The three forwards on the top line played their assigned roles right out of the gate.  Tom Wilson nailed Chris Kunitz in the neutral zone to force a turnover, the puck gathered up by Evgeny Kuznetsov, who fed it back to Wilson heading up ice.  Wilson curled into the offensive zone, and from the right wing wall dropped the puck back to Kuznetsov trailing.  Kuznetsov pivoted and fed the puck across to Alex Ovechkin for a one-timer that appeared to get nicked on the way through by the stick of defenseman Anton Stralman.  The ever so slight redirection was enough to elude goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy, who was poised to collect the puck in his jersey logo, only to see it sail past his blocker to make it 1-0 just 62 seconds into the contest.  It would be the only goal of the first period.

Second Period

As the game moved to the mid-way point, one had the feeling that the next team to score would grab the momentum for good.  How the Caps did it was especially deflating for the Lightning.  With three Lightning players clogging the wall in front of the penalty boxes, Lars Eller was the Capital who took possession of the puck, turning and feeding Andre Burakovsky gliding through the neutral zone.  Burakovsky did not receive the puck cleanly, but he did manage to poke it off the stick of defenseman Dan Girardi, breaking behind the defenseman to break in alone on Vasilevskiy.  Burakovsky snapped the puck from in close over the right pad of the goalie, and the Caps had a 2-0 lead 8:59 into the second period.

Burakovsky did it again eight minutes later.  While the Lightning were trying to execute a line change, John Carlson swatted the puck off the boards in his own end, Burakovsky collecting the puck at the red line.  With the Lightning slow to make their changes, Burakovsky broke in alone on Vasilevskiy and snapped the puck between his pads to make it a 3-0 game at the 16:31 mark.  The teams went to the dressing room after 40 minutes with the Caps holding a commanding advantage.

Third Period

The last 20 minutes could not go fast enough for Caps fans, but for the Caps on the ice it was a matter of clamping down on the Lightning and preventing chances.  They did just that (Tampa Bay did not record their first shot on goal until the 10:56 mark of the period), and with the clock winding down, the Lightning were forced to pull Vasilevskiy for an extra attacker with just over four minutes left.  Less than 30 seconds later, the Caps thrust the dagger into the Lightning season.  Jay Beagle battled behind the Tampa Bay net and fished the puck out to the blue paint where Nicklas Backstrom batted it into the open net, and the scoring was complete, the Caps skating into the final with a 4-0 victory.

Other stuff…

-- Earl Robertson’s name is largely lost in the annals of NHL history, but he is the last goaltender to pitch consecutive shutouts in elimination games in Stanley Cup history before Braden Holtby did it in Games 6 and 7 in this series.  Robertson did the deed in 1937 for the Detroit Red Wings, not having played a single regular season game in the NHL that season.  Stranger still, the six games Robertson played for the Wings backstopping them to the Cup were the only ones he ever played for Detroit.  He was traded to the New York Americans after that season.

-- If there was a word to describe this game and this series for the Caps, it might be “redemption.”  There was Holtby redeeming himself after starting the postseason on the bench, but there was also Lars Eller.  After a difficult few games in this series, Eller put together his second straight solid game.  A liberal scorer might have given him an assist on the first Burakovsky goal.  He led the team with five shots on goal, and he had two takeaways and two credited hits.  He won seven of 13 draws and finished plus-2 in just under 18 minutes of ice time.

-- Continuing that redemption theme, there was Andre Burakovsky.  Intermittently benched in this postseason, he scored those two breakaway goals to cement the win.  It was his third career multi-goal game, potting a pair against the Rangers in 2015 and repeating the effort against the Penguins in 2017.

-- It only seems fitting that for Alex Ovechkin, it was his eighth career game-winning goal in the postseason.

-- Every year, someone writes another chapter in the “Hockey Players Are the Toughest” history.  This year, the chapter gets written by Nicklas Backstrom.  If you saw the post-game handshake line, there was Backstrom shaking hands with his left hand, his right hand still injured.  But he had the empty-net goal, won nine of 17 draws, and finished plus-1.

-- John Carlson… 25 minutes, an assist, two shots on goal, five blocked shots, two credited hits, and a plus-3.

-- Dmitry Orlov led the team with 25:40 in ice time and was a plus-2.

-- The Caps led the credited hits totals in Game 6, 39-19, largely a case of peeling Lightning players off the puck and taking possession.  Tampa Bay returned the favor, to a point, in Game 7, recording 46 hits to 27 for the Caps.  Sometimes, it does not have the desired effect, though.

-- The Caps were opportunistic, to say the least.  If we wrote only this sentence – “the Caps had 23 shots on goal for the game, Alex Ovechkin, Lars Eller, and Evgeny Kuznetsov combining for 13 of them” – you might have thought the Caps lost.

-- Kuznetsov extended his points streak with an assist on the Ovechkin goal.  At ten straight games with a point, Kuznetsov owns the franchise record.

In the end…

The “final” frontier…where no Capital has gone before.  Well, in 20 years, anyway.  For the second time in team history, the Capitals will be playing hockey in June.  This game was unlike any other the Caps have played in their postseason history.  An elimination game that they grabbed by the throat and held onto for 60 minutes.  They never really let Tampa Bay breathe.  The stars – Alex Ovechkin and Nickas Backstrom in particular – took over.  They had the “hot goalie.”  Alex Ovechkin was the one on the bench after the second Andre Burakovsky goal screaming, “that’s my boy!”  They were the ones getting the empty-net goal in the end to silence the home crowd for the last time.  They were the back-slapping celebrants at the end of the game.

And with that said, we will gladly eat a plate of crow.  We proclaimed this era “dead” after the Caps lost to the Penguins last May.  But this team has put together a season to be remembered and celebrated.  On paper, not as good as previous clubs, but one with a winning chemistry not seen in more than four decades of Caps history. There is much work yet to be done against a formidable opponent, but for now – tonight – just take it all in.  This is a game, a series, and a season to savor.

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.