Sunday, June 17, 2018

Washington Capitals: 2017-2018 By the Tens -- Forwards: Nicklas Backstrom

Nicklas Backstrom

"Paralyze resistance with persistence."
-- Woody Hayes

Even now, with a championship on his resume, there is a nagging tendency to take Nicklas Backstrom for granted or lose him in the lineup of great players of the last decade.  Maybe it’s the goal scoring.  True, coming into this season Backstrom was wedged between Alexandre Burrows and Bryan Little in the rankings since the 2007-2008 season, when Backstrom came into the league.  But only Joe Thornton and Henrik Sedin had more assists over the same period, and Backstrom was second on the list in assists per game (to Sidney Crosby) and was eighth in points per game (minimum: 400 games).

What it comes down to, though, is the style.  Backstrom might not have a parallel in bending the pace of a game to his liking.  In that respect, Coach Hayes’ quote about paralyzing resistance with persistence is fitting.  Throw in “consistent,” and you have Backstrom.  In 2017, Backstrom:

  • Appeared in 81 games, making it 80 of more games for the seventh time in ten full seasons (not including the abbreviated 2012-2013 season)
  • Recorded 21 goals, the fifth time he hit or topped the 20-goal mark
  • Added 50 assists, the eighth time he hit or topped the 50-assist mark
  • Posted 71 points, the seventh time he hit or topped the 70-point mark
  • Scored seven power play goals, fourth-most for a season in his career
  • Had 27 power play points, making it eight in which he had 25 or more power play points in a season
  • Recorded four game-winning goals, tied for second-most in his career

Drill down into his season, though, and there were dents in that armor of consistency.  His goal scoring was reasonably consistent across the eight segments, only once finishing with fewer than two goals and once with more than three.  But his assist totals thinned out in the middle portion of the season. He had 20 assists over his first three ten-game segments, but he had only 16 over his next four.  He closed with a rush, though, going 6-20-26 in his last two ten-game segments.  Seems he got a bit more ornery over the same segments, too.  He had almost half of his 46 penalty minutes (22) in those last two segments.

Fearless’ Take… Nicklas Backstrom is still arguably the straw that stirs the drink for the Caps.  They were 33-6-3 in games in which he recorded a point, 16-19-4 when they did not; 16-2-3 when he recorded a goal, 33-23-4 when he did not.  He was also a consistent player by venue, going 10-24-34 in 41 home games and 11-26-37 in 40 road games.  The consistency was hardly unusual.  Backstrom finished the regular season with 14 goals and 406 points in 407 career home games, and 105 goals and 393 points in 408 road games.

Cheerless’ Take… It would be fair to say that Backstrom is now the second-line center.  No sin in that, but after spending the better part of his first decade in the league centering Alex Ovechkin, that job was Evgeny Kuznetsov’s this season.  It might have played a role in Backstrom finishing with his lowest points per game (0.88) since his rookie season (0.84). Yes, he had those 50 assists for the eighth time in his career, but it was his second-lowest total for any season in which he appeared in more than 50 games (47 in 77 games in 2010-2011), and it was his lowest career assists per game (0.62) of any of his 11 seasons.

Odd Backstrom Fact… In 2017-2018 Nicklas Backstrom scored 21 goals.  He scored those 21 goals in 21 different games, making this the first full season in his career he did not have a multi-goal game (excluding the abbreviated 2012-2013 season in which he had eight goals in eight different games on the 48-game schedule).

Game to Remember… February 6th at Columbus

When the Caps visited the Columbus Blue Jackets in early February, they held a three-point lead over the New Jersey Devils at the top of the Metropolitan Division.  However, they were in the midst of a slump of sorts, losers of two straight and with a 3-4-2 over their previous nine games.  The teams traded first period goals, and Tom Wilson scored in the second to give the Caps a lead going into the last 20 minutes.  The Caps were playing a somewhat desperate team, though.  The Blue Jackets went into this game tied with the New York Islanders for fourth place in the division and only three points ahead of the last-place New York Rangers.  They drew even late in the period when Brandon Dubinsky batted in a rebound of his own shot with just 6:05 left in regulation.  The teams might have gone to extra time, but with less than a minute left, this happened…

It was Nicklas Backstrom’s 200th career goal and his first game-winning goal scored on the road in the 2017-2018 season.  He became just the fifth player in Caps’ history to score 200 goals with the club, joining Alex Ovechkin, Peter Bondra, Mike Gartner, and Mike Ridley.  With an assist earlier in the game, it was also his 207th career multi-point game, putting him one behind Bondra for second-most in Caps history.  He added nine more multi-point games over the rest of the season to take second place all to himself.

Game to Forget… January 11th vs. Carolina

The Caps were closing out a three-game home stand in early January against the Carolina Hurricanes, bringing a five-game winning streak into the contest.  It was the second time that the Caps would face the ‘Canes in barely a week and part of a stretch in which they would face Carolina three times in five games. The first game in this trifecta was a tough one, the Caps winning a 5-4 decision on an overtime goal by Alex Ovechkin.  This game was proving to be as closely fought.  The teams went to the first intermission scoreless.  The scoreless tie was broken mid-way through the second period when, on a Caps power play, Jordan Staal intercepted a weak cross-ice pass from John Carlson intended for Alex Ovechkin and scored on a breakaway shorthanded.  Lars Eller tied the game for the Caps late in the period, but Carolina regained the lead mid-way through the third on a goal by Victor Rask.  Sebastien Aho added an empty net goal for the final 3-1 margin.  As for Backstrom, he was on ice for all three Carolina goals and did not have a shot attempt in the contest.  The odd part of it is that it was the 11th time in his career Backstrom did not register a shot on goal against Carolina, second-most by a Capital against that team since he entered the league (Jeff Schultz: 17).

Postseason…  Until this postseason, Nicklas Backstrom had never missed a postseason game to injury.  The only one of 97 playoff games for the Caps that he missed before this season was due to his receiving a one-game suspension for a cross-check he administered to Rich Peverley of the Boston Bruins at the end of Game 3 of their 2012 series  Then, he was in the lineup for the Caps’ first 11 postseason games this year.  In that 11th game, though, Backstrom was helping kill a Pittsburgh Penguin power play when he blocked a shot off the stick of Justin Schultz, and while he did play after that, he did so in distress and sat out the last 13 minutes in a 6-3 Caps win.   To that point, Backstrom was 3-10-13 in scoring, a points total only exceeded in an entire playoff season once in his career (2009, when he had 15 points in 14 games).

Backstrom missed the Caps’ next four games, the series-clinching win against the Penguins in Pittsburgh and then the first three games of the conference final against Tampa Bay.  That four-game absence might have been longer but for the fact that after clinching the series win against the Penguins and winning Games 1 and 2 in Tampa against the Lightning in the conference final, the Caps lost Game 3 on home ice.  He returned for Games 4 and 5, both Caps losses that put Washington on the brink of elimination.  Backstrom raised his game in Game 6, recording a pair of assists in a 3-0 win.  It was the first of what would be a superb run for Backstrom, who went 2-8-10 in the Caps’ last seven playoff games, six of them wins.  Only once in that stretch did Backstrom not record a point, that being in Game 3 against Vegas in the final.  He finished the postseason 5-18-23 in 20 games, his 18 assists equaling the total he posted in his previous 40 playoff games before this season.  Those 18 assists are also the second-highest total by a Capital in the postseason in team history (Evgeny Kuznetsov had 20 in these playoffs).

In the end…

It is a foregone conclusion at this point that Alex Ovechkin will be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame.  It should be one regarding Nicklas Backstrom as well.  In 11 NHL seasons he has 590 assists, 59 assists per 82 games played.  If he plays another six seasons, he could well top 900 assists for his career.  At the moment, 19 players in NHL history complied 900 or more assists in their careers.  Of that group, 17 are already in the Hall of Fame, and Joe Thornton and Jaromir Jagr would appear locks.  Even of the 31 players with 800 or more assists, 27 are in the Hall, three are active (and likely to be inducted), leaving only Pierre Turgeon (last season: 2006-2007) as Hall-eligible who has not been inducted.

This is the position into which 11 years of excellence has placed Backstrom.  He is on a very short list of best playmakers of his time and might be eclipsed only by Ovechkin as the greatest Capital of all time.  His 2017-2018 season was a tribute to his consistency and resolve.  He overcame a bit of unfamiliarity with new linemates and then injury in the postseason, a pair of fractures to his finger being the sort of injury that could cripple a lesser player who depends on deft passing as the core of his game.  In one respect – the absence of fireworks in his game – his 2017-2018 season was like any other, but while he might paralyze opponents with pesistence, those in Capitals Nation who have watched his game over the past 11 seasons know that a fire lurks under that quiet demeanor.

Photo: Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post

Thursday, June 14, 2018

Washington Capitals: An Appreciation for Those Who Helped Deliver a Champion

The parade is over, the parties are (largely) winding down, and the non-stop high octane celebrations are dwindling.  Now is the time to acknowledge those for whom the Stanley Cup in Washington is no small measure of sweet satisfaction.

And it starts at the top.  To Majority Owner Ted Leonsis, congratulations.  This championship is richly deserved.  When one lives the life of a sports owner as publicly as Leonsis, he is going to leave himself open to second guessing and criticism (heaven knows, we’ve been a party to it).  His openness led him to take the heat that might otherwise be directed at this manager or that player.  But despite that, he had the patience and determination to see this through, and the charge that he led in pursuit of the Stanley Cup as the organizational face of the franchise paid off.  He stands alone atop the pyramid in the DMV as a sports owner and manager.  And it will take considerable effort to knock him off that perch any time soon.  Well done, Ted.

Then there is Brian MacLellan.  When he was named general manager, some might have wondered why hire from within when there was so much disappointment and frustration that played out under previous management (of which he was a part).  Well, this is why fans and media don’t make personnel decisions.  MacLellan showed himself not only to be adept at constructing a roster, he didn’t seem to care much about how much he revealed in terms of strategy.  He was going to do it a certain way, he was going to be open about doing things a certain way, and there really wasn’t much anyone could do to get in his way.  Sure, he was the latest architect of a roster that disappointed in 2016 and 2017, but despite a two-year window that even in his own telling seemed to be closing, he added pieces to the roster to replace bigger names departing that proved to be the right ones.  It might not have been the most talented team the Capitals ever iced or that looked best on paper, but it was the “best” team where it mattered – on the ice.  And he, along with his staff, deserve a lot of credit for that.  Well done, Brian.

There is Barry Trotz.  How many coaches in any sport go from being literally one game from being fired to coaching a champion in the same season?  You can probably count them on your fist.  He did not have quite as bright a light shining on his perceived shortcomings as Alex Ovechkin, but there were parallels, most notably his never having coached a team out of the second round of the playoffs.  As the playoffs wore on, though, it seemed every choice he made was the right one – benching and then reinstating Andre Burakovsky, bringing Braden Holtby back into the lineup in Game 2 against Columbus, not using as a crutch the reuniting of Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom on a line when it might have been the “safe” move to do so, taking the “hot” lap to relieve the tension before Game 7 against Tampa Bay in the conference final.  Life does not present many runs of good fortune like that, but it would be unkind and unfair to Trotz to pronounce it “lucky.”  After all, he came into this postseason as the fifth-winningest coach in the regular season in NHL history, and he had ten previous trips to the postseason as experience on which he could rely.  And one should not forget his having planted the seeds of success months ago, knowing that the club that lost to the Penguins in 2017 needed to heal, and meeting with Alex Ovechkin in Moscow in the offseason to talk about what the forward needed to do for the upcoming season.  For Trotz, the season was a coaching tour de force.  There wasn’t anything “lucky” about it.  Well done, Barry.

And the same goes for Trotz’ staff.  Todd Reirden, Lane Lambert, Blaine Forsythe, Scott Murray, Brett Leonhardt, Tim Ohashi, Mitch Korn, and Olaf Kolzig had to play their parts and fill their roles well to make sure that no part of the game – special teams, goaltending, team and opponent tendencies – could fall through the cracks.  These coaches made sure no stone was left unturned in finding an advantage to implement or a deficiency among opponents to exploit.  Well done, gentlemen.

Teams have to deal with the grind of an 82-game season, and it is hard on the bodies of even the most finely trained and tuned athletes.  Teams have to be current with what is going on around them across the league.  They have to provide the logistical and other support to make a long season bearable, allowing the players to focus on hockey.  The efforts of the medical, analytical, scouting, and operations staff often fly under the radar, but they are as important to the success of a champion as the more visible elements.  Well done, indeed.

And we cannot forget that as much as a sports organization, this is a media organization.  Mike Vogel, John Walton, and Ken Sabourin, whether out in front of the public on game days with commentary, interviews, and giving voice to the games, or behind the scenes preparing and producing content, made this a season to remember.  And to this group we would have to add Joe Beninati and Craig Laughlin of NBC Sports Washington, the best television broadcast pair in the NHL, period and point blank.  Each of these individuals made the memories of this season more vivid and meaningful.

Fans are generally fans of players, not of those who toil in suits.  But leadership, management, and media for the Caps (including those we might not have mentioned here) played no small role in achieving what has eluded this franchise for four decades.  They deserve the respect and appreciation by Capitals Nation for a job well done. 

Photo: Getty Images

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Washington Capitals: 44 Years, 44 Days

When the Washington Capitals awoke on April 26, 2018, they had escaped a tough foe in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Columbus Blue Jackets.  But that evening they would face once more perhaps the most bitter, most frustrating rival in the 44 years of franchise history.  The Pittsburgh Penguins inflicted more pain and heartache on the Capitals and their fans than any other team.  Ten times they faced the Penguins in the playoffs, and nine times they were eliminated by them, more than by any other franchise.

Things would not come easy for the Caps.  Facing the Penguins with home ice advantage as Metropolitan Division winners, Washington promptly gave it away.  Taking a 1-0 advantage into the third period and adding a goal by Alex Ovechkin just 28 seconds into the third period, they  allowed the Penguins three goals in the space of 4:49 of the third period to come out on the short end of a 3-2 decision.

The Capitals evened the series at a game apiece with a 4-1 win in Game 2 on home ice, but they would have to win at least one game in Pittsburgh to win this series.  They did it in Game 3, turning the tables on the Penguins.  Pittsburgh took a 3-2 lead into the third period, but goals by Matt Niskanen and Alex Ovechkin in the third provided the winning margin in 4-3 win.  Ovechkin’s goal at the 18:53 mark provided one of those “signs” that fans might point to as evidence that this year would be different.  Ovechkin appeared to bury a feed by Nicklas Backstrom off a 2-on-1 rush, but his shot hit the post on goalie Matt Murray’s glove side.  The puck caromed behind Murray and out the other side, giving Ovechkin an opportunity for one more swipe at it.  He did not fail, swatting the puck out of mid-air and into the back of the net for the game-winning goal.

Pittsburgh won Game 4 by a 3-1 margin to tie the series at two games apiece, reducing the fight to a best-of-three affair.  Games 5-7 have not been kind to the Caps in the first 43 years of team history, and it was with no small amount of concern about Game 5 on home ice.  That concern seemed well-founded when Pittsburgh took another 3-2 lead into the third period of this contest.  Evgeny Kuznetsov pulled the Caps even just 52 seconds into the period, setting up a tense final frame.  Where the Caps might have crumbled in the past in such situations, they did not in this game.  They came through in a manner that eluded them in the past, getting the big save when they needed it and a goal on the ensuing rush.  It was Braden Holtby stopping a point blank backhand by Brian Dumoulin at one end, and then Alex Ovechkin carrying the puck into the other end.  Just before looping around the Penguin net, he fed the puck in front where Jakub Vrana buried it from the low slot.  The Caps added empty net goals by T.J. Oshie and Lars Eller 35 seconds apart, and the Caps had a 6-3 win.

Suddenly, it was the Penguins feeling the heat, facing an elimination game on home ice, their “threepeat” as Stanley Cup champion in considerable jeopardy in Game 6.  It was a classic.  After a scoreless first period with little in the way of shots, the teams combining for only 13 in the first 20 minutes, they exchanged second period goals.  Alex Chiasson gave the Caps a lead, and Kris Letang tied the game mid-way through the period.  When neither club could solve the other goaltender in the third, it went to overtime. 

Hockey is a different animal from other team sports in many respects, but how overtime ends might be the most unique aspect of the sport.  In football, you can generally see things coming as a team drives down the field for what would be the game-winning field goal or touchdown.  Even in baseball, most walk-off decisions are the product of putting runners on base to drive in with a base hit.  In basketball, there is a clock that must run its course.  But in hockey, overtime often ends with a thunderclap, unexpected and loud.   It almost did for the Caps in overtime in this game when Tom Kuhnhackl hit the post with a shot that ricocheted out instead of in.  Later, overtime ended, not in a thunderclap, but on a play that took seconds that seemed like hours, a play that had its own sense of building anticipation, of Caps fans wondering “is this finally it?!”…

Having slayed their most bitter rival, the Caps were merely half way to a championship.  And, it would not be their last difficult test.  The Tampa Bay Lightning were the top team in the Eastern Conference in the regular season, finishing eight points ahead of the third-place Caps and winners of two of the three games in their season series.

The Caps faced the Lightning twice in the postseason in the past, losing a six-game series in 2003 and being swept by Tampa Bay in 2011.  The first two games called up memories of that first meeting, in 2003. That was one in which the Caps won Game 1 and 2 in Tampa.  The Caps did just that in May, beating the Lightning by 4-2 and 6-2 margins.  With two dominating wins and returning to home ice, the thought of “sweep” might have entered more than a few heads.

That notion was crushed when the Lightning called up their own memories of 2003, taking Games 3 and 4 at Capital One Arena by identical 4-2 scores.  When Tampa Bay won Game 5 at Amalie Arena, 3-2, in Game 5, that 2003 series seemed to be playing out as a video replay.

Game 6 in 2003 went to three overtimes before the Capitals succumbed to the Lightning on a power play goal.  This time, Washington never let the Lightning get close enough to fashion a similar ending.  There was no scoring in the first period, but T.J. Oshie got the Caps on top with a power play goal late in the second period.  Devante Smith Pelly, who displayed an uncanny sense of timing for critical goals in this postseason, provided insurance with a goal ten minutes into the third period.  Oshie hammered the last nail into the coffin with an empty net goal in the last minute.  But it was Braden Holtby who shined brightest and stood tallest in this game, staving off elimination with a 24-save shutout to set up a winner-take-all in Tampa in Game 7 for a trip to the final.

Alex Ovechkin opened the scoring in Game 7 just 62 seconds into the contest, and the Caps never looked back.  Andre Burakovsky scored goals seven minutes apart in the second period, and Nicklas Backstrom added a fourth goal into an empty net with 3:43 left.  At the other end, Holtby was once more magnificent, stopping all 29 shots he faced.  In posting a second consecutive shutout in an elimination game, he became the first goaltender to do so without posting one in the regular season since Earl Robertson did it in 1937 for the Detroit Red Wings (Robertson not only did not post a shutout in the regular season, he did not appear in a regular season game).

For the first time in 20 years, the Capitals would skate for the Stanley Cup in the final.  Their opponent – the Vegas Golden Knights – were an expansion team in fact, but hardly one in performance.  They won 51 games in the regular season and carried a record of 12-3 in the playoffs into the final.  It was a club that did it by using speed, forechecking pressure, depth, and balance over the course of the season.  All were on display in Game 1 in which the Golden Knights broke on top with a 6-4 win.  The five goals allowed by Holtby (Vegas added an empty-netter) were the most he ever allowed in a road playoff game and only the second time in 78 postseason games played that he allowed as many.

That, however, would constitute the beginning and the end of the fun for hockey’s darlings.  Vegas managed only eight goals in total over the next four games, all Caps wins, while the Caps were making Marc-Andre Fleury look something less than his otherworldly self that he displayed in the first three rounds (12-3, 1.68, .947, four shutouts).  The Caps did it in a “team” way. 
  • Alex Ovechkin tied for the team lead in goals in the series with three, but the player with whom he was tied was Devante Smith-Pelly. 
  • Smith-Pelly had one game-winning goal, but so did three other Caps: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Brooks Orpik (perhaps the most unlikely goal scorer of all, let alone a game-winner), and for the Cup-clinching game-winner, Lars Eller.
  • Fifteen different skaters had points in the five games. 
  • The point leaders were the players Caps fans have yearned for over the years, strong first and second line centers.  And both did it by spreading the wealth.  Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom each had a goal, but Kuznetsov had seven assists, while Backstrom added six.
  • John Carlson added two goals and two assists, his four points bringing his playoff total to 20, leading all defensemen in the playoffs and obliterating his own record for points by a defenseman in a single postseason (12 in 2016, held with Kevin Hatcher (1988) and Scott Stevens (1988)).
  • Michal Kempny proved to be the deadline deal defenseman to make a difference that Kevin Shattenkirk was expected to be – and wasn’t – last season.  He had a goal and two assists in the series.

And it goes on and on.  One could look at every name on the roster and come up with a statistic or an anecdote describing their contribution to this, the most successful team in Washington Capitals history.

And so it was.  In 43 days, the Caps defeated their most bitter rival and the top club in the Eastern Conference to reach the Stanley Cup final.  There, they faced a club, their “expansion club” status aside, that swept a club that won two Cups in the previous six seasons, beat a team that was a Stanley Cup finalist two years ago (and that they shut out in the first and last wins of that series), and beat in five games a team with the second-best record in the Western Conference.  It was not an easy road to winning the Cup.

But there they were, and on the 44th day of that difficult road, in their 44th year in the NHL, they awoke Stanley Cup Champions.

Friday, June 08, 2018

Washington Capitals: Luck is What You Make of It

The difference between winning and losing, success and failure, joy and despair might be thinner in hockey than in any other team sport.  The Washington Capitals and their fans could testify to the veracity of that statement.  For years – decades – Capitals Nation always seemed to be on the dark side of that margin.  It could hardly be helped if many in the Nation asked themselves over the years in frustration, “what if?”  As in...
  • “What if that puck didn’t graze the shaft of Rod Langway’s stick in the fourth overtime against the Islanders on Easter morning in 1987, changing its direction by an inch or two to elude Bob Mason?”
  • “What if Esa Tikkanen scores that goal after he deked Detroit goalie Chris Osgood to the ice in the third period of Game 2 in the Stanley Cup final with the Caps nursing a one-goal lead?”
  • “What if Sergei Gonchar doesn’t lose the puck on some bad ice at his own blue line in overtime of Game 6 against Pittsburgh in 2001?”
  • “What if Jason Doig waits a second longer to jump onto the ice in the third overtime of Game 6 against Tampa Bay on Easter in 2003?”
  • “What if the ref put his whistle in his pocket in overtime against the Flyers in 2008 instead of calling Tom Poti for an iffy tripping penalty, or on the ensuing power play Cristobal Huet doesn't look in the wrong direction in search of a loose puck after making the initial save?”
  • “What if Alex Ovechkin scores on a breakaway early in Game 7 against the Penguins in 2009?”
  • “What if one puck – one stinking puck – hit a body or a stick or a skate on the way to Jaroslav Halak in any of the last three games against Montreal in 2010?”
  • “What if the Caps won a defensive zone faceoff in overtime against the Rangers in Game 7 in 2015?”
  • “What if the Caps won one of the two overtime losses to Pittsburgh over the last three games of their 2016 series?”

It seemed that whenever there was a critical, game-changing, series-turning moment, it always changed or turned in the opponent’s favor.  But oh, how that script was flipped in 2018…

After losing Games 1 and 2 on home ice, both in overtime, to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Caps could have gone down, 0-3, when they went to a second overtime in Game 3, but this happened…

How many times did that puck change direction after Brett Connolly took the original shot?

And it only started there...
  • What if Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t get his stick on a Dmitry Orlov shot in overtime of Game 5 of that series to give the Caps a 3-2 lead heading back to Columbus instead of the Blue Jackets taking a lead back home with a chance to eliminate the Caps?
  • What if Alex Ovechkin swings and misses instead of batting the puck out of mid-air on a rebound with 67 seconds left in regulation in Game 3 against the Penguins in Pittsburgh to give the Caps a 2-1 lead in games and regain home-ice advantage that they lost when they split their first two games at home?
  • What if Tom Kuhnhackl’s shot off the post just before the three-minute mark of overtime goes in instead of caroming out to send the series against the Penguins back to Washington for a seventh game instead of Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the game/series winner two minutes later?
  • What if Alex Tuch gets a couple more inches of air under his shot from point blank range with two minutes left in regulation in Game 2 and the Caps hanging on by their fingernails to a one-goal lead and already down a game in the series?
  • What if, when he is tripped by Colin Miller while taking a shot, Devante Smith-Pelly is knocked off balance enough to whiff on his shot instead of scoring the game-tying goal ten minutes into the third period of Game 6 against Vegas?
  • What if, less than three minutes later in the same game, the puck does not sneak between the legs of Marc-Andre Fleury just enough off a shot from Brett Connolly for Lars Eller to swoop in and bat home what would be the game-winning/series-clinching/Cup-winning/grief-ending goal?

The poet John Milton once said, “luck is the residue of design.”  The Capitals put themselves in a position to win games, clinch series, and capture the Stanley Cup by virtue of clever design and artful execution of a game plan.  But hockey being what it is, a certain randomness – luck, if you will – will present itself from time to time.  And after decades of seeing those lucky bounces swing the opponent’s way, the Caps put themselves in a position to reap the benefits of luck shining on their side of the ice.  They earned their good fortune.

Photo: Getty Images

Stanley Cup Final -- Game 5: Washington Capitals 4 - Vegas Golden Knights 3

On October 9, 1974, the Washington Capitals took the ice for the first time, dropping a 6-3 decision to the New York Rangers.  It took 3,700 more regular season and playoff games, but 15,947 days later, the Washington Capitals may now add “Stanley Cup Champion” to their history.

The Capitals vanquished the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of their Stanley Cup final series with a thrilling come-from-behind 4-3 win at T-Mobile Arena, ending the fifth-longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL.  With the win, the Caps become the 19th franchise in the current NHL to hoist the Cup.

First Period

The period did not lack for intensity, but it was the sort of intensity one sees in the feeling-out early rounds of a prize fight at Caesar’s Palace.  The Caps enjoyed the period’s only power play, but could not convert.  Alex Ovechkin had a chance off a feed from John Carlson, but his one-timer from the left wing circle clanged off the far post past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and out.  It would be perhaps the best chance either team had in the opening 20 minutes.

Odd numbers… The Caps had a 15-12 advantage in shot attempts and a 9-7 edge in shots on goal.  Ovechkin led with four shot attempts, while three Caps had three apiece (Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Christian Djoos).  Vegas had a whopping 18-10 edge in credited hits.  Dmitry Orlov led all players with 9:13 in ice time in the period.

Second Period

The Caps got a gift early, Shea Theodore taking a tripping penalty to put Washington on their second power play.  The Caps did not convert, and it looked as if it might come back to haunt them when Vegas was awarded a power play a minute after the Caps’ man advantage expired.  Vegas could not convert on their opportunity, leaving it to an even strength situation in which the game’s first goal would be scored.

Off a Deryk Engelland missed shot, the Caps quickly transitioned to offense, Tom Wilson feeding Jakub Vrana on a breakaway.  Vrana charged in and snapped a shot high over Fleury’s glove and into the top corner to make it a 1-0 game 6:24 into the period.

Vegas tied the game three minutes later when Jonathan Marchessault redirected an attempt by Reilly Smith past Braden Holtby, and the Golden Knights were back in it 9:40 into the period.

The tie lasted 34 seconds.  With Brayden McNabb in the box on a tripping call, Nicklas Backstrom had the puck in the dispatch office along the right wall.  Picking a lane that perhaps only he could see, he threaded a pass all the way through to Alex Ovechkin in the left wing circle.  Ovechkin’s one-timer flew behind Fleury into the back of the net, and the Caps had a 2-1 lead at the 10:14 mark.

Vegas crawled back into it a second time, though.  David Perron redirected a Tomas Tatar effort into the net as he was tumbling into it himself.  The Caps challenged the goal, but the on-ice call stood, apparently a case of Christian Djoos being the force behind Perron’s tumble.  The game was tied, 2-2, 12:56 into the frame.

Reilly Smith gave Vegas their first lead of the game late in the period.  With Ovechkin in the box for tripping, Vegas had the Caps running around in their own end, and eventually the puck pinballed out to Smith, who had an open net into which he slid the puck.  With 28.2 seconds left in the period, Vegas was up, 3-2.

Third Period

The teams got off to an ornery start to the third period, both clubs drawing two sets of coincidental minor penalties for roughing – Brooks Orpik and Jay Beagle for the Caps, Tomas Tatar and Alex Tuch for Vegas.

Vegas took another penalty in the sixth minute, Tatar going off for hooking.  The Knights weathered the storm, though, in what appeared to be the Caps’ best remaining chance to make a new game of it.

The Caps did have more left in them, though.  Mid-way through the period, Devante Smith-Pelly cut across the slot and settled a shot from the left point off the stick of Brooks Orpik with his skate.  As he was being hooked/tripped by Colin Miller, he managed to get off a shot as he was falling, beating Fleury on the glove side to make it a 3-3 game 9:52 into the period.

And they had one more left in them.  The Caps worked the puck in deep, and Vegas defenseman Luc Sbisa went to try and collect it behind the Knights’ net.  He lost the puck in his skates, though, and it slid to Andre Burakovsky, who fed it in front to Brett Connolly steaming down the middle.  Connolly’s shot was stopped by Fleury, but the puck trickled through his pads.  Lars Eller jumped in, dug it out from between Fleury’s ankles, and snapped it into the back of the net from the top of the paint, and the Caps had the lead once more at 4-3, 12:23 into the period.

The clock could not move fast enough for the Caps after that, but Braden Holtby was the wall that would not yield, and the Caps skated off the last 7:37 to claim the Stanley Cup.

Other stuff…

-- Ovechkin’s goal was his 15th of the postseason, tying the high for a single postseason since 2005-2006 (Sidney Crosby in 2009).  It set a new franchise record for goals in a postseason (John Druce: 14 in 1990).

-- Vrana’s goal broke a 12-game streak without one, dating back to Game 5 against the Penguins.  That one was a game-winner for the Caps.

-- Lars Eller got the game-winning goal, his third of the postseason, all of them on the road.  He is the first player from Denmark to win a Stanley Cup.

-- The amazing thing on the score sheet… eleven different skaters recorded a point.  One point apiece. 

-- Ovechkin had 11 shot attempts, Lars Eller had five shots on goal (tied with Ovechkin), Tom Wilson had six credited hits, Michal Kempny had three blocked shots, Nicklas Backstrom won 14 of 22 draws (63.6 percent).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had an assist.  He finished with points in 19 of the 24 games of the postseason.

-- The win was the Caps’ tenth on the road in this postseason, tying an NHL record for one postseason.

-- John Carlson had an assist, giving him points in 15 of the 24 games from the blue line.  He led all playoff defensemen with 19 points and tied for the postseason lead in goals among defensemen (Dustin Byfuglien).

-- Devante Smith-Pelly’s goal was his seventh of the postseason, a career best and fourth highest on the team behind Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie.

-- Braden Holtby stopped 28 of 31 shots for the win.  In the last 22 games he played, all starts after sitting for Philipp Grubauer to start the first two games of the postseason, he was 16-6, 2.17, .922.

-- The Caps came into this game as the only team in the postseason to have won two games when trailing after two periods.  Now, it's three.

In the end…

It all boils down to this in the end… Washington Capitals, Stanley Cup Champions.

Monday, June 04, 2018

Stanley Cup Final -- Game 4: Washington Capitals 6 - Vegas Golden Knights 2

The Washington Capitals hosted the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup final at Capital One Arena on Monday night.  They gave Vegas more than they could take and Caps fans all that they could want in slamming the Golden Knights, 6-2, to take a commanding 3-1 lead in games in the 2018 Stanley Cup final.

First Period

As expected, behind two games to one, Vegas came out hard and fast.  Getting a power play less than four minutes into the game did not help the Caps’ fortunes, but despite an 11-2 advantage in shot attempts, that power play in the first seven minutes, and two shots off the post behind goalie Braden Holtby, the Caps and Golden Knights remained scoreless.

Then, it was Vegas’ turn to kill a penalty.  It did not go well for the visitors.  With Colin Miller off on a tripping call, Evgeny Kuznetsov settled a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and worked the puck low to the right of goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.  Kuznetsov’s shot was turned aside by Fleury, but into open ice to his left.  T.J. Oshie filled the space, settled the puck with his skate, and snapped a shot over Fleury’s left pad to give the Caps a 1-0 lead, 9:54 into the period.

The Caps added a goal late in the period.  Off a faceoff to Fleury’s right, defensemen Deryk Engelland took control of the puck, but it was knocked off his stick at the far edge of the faceoff circle.  Tom Wilson picked it up and dropped it off to Kuznetsov circling low around the outside of the faceoff circle.  As Kuznetsov was moving around the circle, Wilson curled to the front of the net.  Kuznetsov fed Wilson between the hash marks, and Wilson snapped a shot past Fleury’s left pad, and it was 2-0, Caps, at the 16:26 mark.

That would have been quite an advantage for the Caps going into the first intermission, but they added to the lead in the last minute.  Devante Smith-Pelly started the play by settling an attempted clear just inside the Vegas blue line. He played the puck along the wall to Alex Ovechkin, who sent the puck across to Matt Niskanen at the right point.  Niskanen’s shot was muffled by the stick of William Karlsson into the feet of Smith-Pelly heading for the net.  Smith-Pelly kicked the puck to his stick and roofed a shot under the crossbar to make it 3-0 with just 20.5 seconds left in the frame.

Odd Numbers… Vegas had a 25-13 edge in shot attempts (11-11 in shots on goal).

Second Period

Vegas came out charging again to start a period, but they once more could get nothing to show for it.  Two power plays in the first then minutes yielded nothing, and it had the effect to swing momentum to the Capitals’ side of the ice once more.  The Caps made the Knights pay for their lack of return on early investments in effort with a power play strike late in the period.

James Neal took an ill-advised slashing penalty with 5:15 left in the period.  With the man advantage, John Carlson took possession of the puck in the corner and backhanded it behind the Vegas net to Nicklas Backstrom.  The puck came through Backstrom, but was collected by T.J. Oshie who stepped out from the goal line and swept the puck to the right wing wall.  There, Evgeny Kuznetsov took control and sent the puck back across to Carlson, who one-timed a shot from the left wing faceoff dot off the far post and behind Fleury to make it 4-0, 15:23 into the period.

Odd Numbers… Vegas out-shot the Caps, 11-5 in the period and had a 25-12 edge in shot attempts.

Third Period

For the Caps, the task was to get through the last 20 minutes without giving Vegas any reason to think they could get back into the contest.  They had a chance to do that with a power play opportunity early in the period, but they could not convert.  Vegas would get their own power play chance just after the Caps’ power play expired, and while they could not convert their chance, they did get on the board just after the penalty to Evgeny Kuznetsov expired.  James Neal snapped a shot under Holtby’s right arm from close quarters and under the crossbar to make it 4-1, 5:43 into the period.

Vegas made it a bit more interesting as the clock wound down under ten minutes in the period.  Brett Connolly was unable to clear the puck up the boards and out of the defensive zone for the Caps, and it ended up being a chance for Reilly Smith, who was in deep to Holtby’s left.  Smith backhanded the puck under the crossbar on the short side to make it 4-2, 12:26 into the period.

The Caps got it back just over a minute later.  With both teams short a man (Ryan Reaves for Vegas, Tom Wilson for the Caps on coincidental roughing minors), Nicklas Backstrom took advantage of the extra space on the ice to thread a pass from the left wing circle across to Michal Kempny for a one-timer that beat Fleury before he could scramble across the crease.  The Caps had their three-goal lead back at 5-2, 13:39 into the period.

Brett Connolly added a power play goal late when he walked out to the slot from the left wing faceoff circle and rifled a shot through a maze of players past Fleury's blocker for the final 6-2 score.

Other stuff…

-- When Evgeny Kuznetsov recorded his third assist of the game (all primary assists) on the John Carlson power play goal, he became the first player in Capitals history to record 30 points in a single postseason.  He finished with four assists, the third player in team history to accomplish that feat in a playoff game (Scott Stevens against the Devils in 1988 and Andrei Nikolishin against Buffalo in 1998; it was the first time it was done on home ice).  It was the first time a player recorded four assists in a Cup final since Joe Sakic had four assists in an 8-1 Game 2 win over the Florida Panthers in 1996.

-- T.J. Oshie (1-2-3) recorded his sixth multi-point game of this postseason and second in this series (he had two assists in the Caps’ 6-4 loss in Game 1).  It was his first three-point game of the playoffs.

-- Nicklas Backstrom had three assists, his seventh multi-point game of the postseason and 25th of his playoff career.  It was the third time he had three assists in a playoff game and first on home ice.

-- The Caps went 3-for-5 on the power play, the first time they recorded three power play goals in a single game since Game 2 against Columbus in the first round.

-- As in Game 3, the Caps had a huge edge in blocked shots, blocking 24 shots to eight for Vegas.

-- On the other hand, Vegas had a 30-23 edge in shots on goal at game’s end and a 71-41 edge in shot attempts.

-- Every Vegas player was credited with at least one hit and had a 39-29 edge.

-- Brooks Orpik threw “box cars” in the "grittership" department … six credited hits, six blocked shots in 17:04 of ice time.

-- “Three” is a magic number for both teams in this postseason.  Both clubs came into this game with a 10-0 record when allowing two or fewer goals.  First to three seemed likely to win, and it was the Caps who got there.

-- Braden Holtby stopped 28 of 30 shots, bringing his three-game total to 86 saves on 91 shots (.945 save percentage).  At the other end, Marc-Andre Fleury stopped 17 of 23 shots.  He is 87-for-103 over the four games of this series (.845).

In the end…

It started in October with a 5-4 Gimmick win against Ottawa, and it now comes down to one more win to reach the promised land for the first time in team history.  That last win, what would be the 65th of the season for the Caps, will no doubt be the hardest of all to secure.  But in this game the Caps sent a clear message that they will have to be beaten.  They are not playing as if they are going to be giving anything away.  And at the end of this contest, Vegas looked as if they had nothing left in the tank to take anything away from the Caps.  They will likely be well-supported by their fans at T-Mobile Arena on Thursday, but one has to wonder if that is going to be enough.  For the first time since the franchise was born, Caps fans can hope that what they saw tonight was the last game on home ice this season.  And while there is still work to be done, the team gave every indication that it would be just that.

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Washington Capitals: Three Games In and Breaking New Ice

Three games into the Stanley Cup final, and the Washington Capitals are in a place they have never been – a two games to one lead in the last playoff series of the season, win or lose.  Capitals Nation is hoping for the “win” part of that phrase, and we are thinking about those first three games and whether there is anything that stands out.  Let’s take a look…

-- The Caps have dressed the same 18 skaters in the three games so far.  While this sounds a bit trivial, consider that the Caps are nursing injuries.  Nicklas Backstrom and Evgeny Kuznetsov undoubtedly are grinding through lingering “upper body” injuries (likely hand for Backstrom, wrist for Kuznetsov).  These are the most recent examples of just what hockey players endure at this time of year to keep moving forward toward their goal of a championship.  That these injuries would hit the top two centers in a manner most likely to affect the strength of their respective games (healthy hands for an offensively-productive player are something of a necessity) speaks to how much this team is determined to see things through.

-- Time on ice.  There are several things that stand out here.  First, that at evens, it is the second forward line getting most of the action.  T.J. Oshie leads the team's forwards with 16:21 in even strength ice time, and Nicklas Backstrom is second (16:08).  Lars Eller, getting mostly third line minutes in this series, is third with 15:39.  The flip side of this is the top line.  There is Tom Wilson leading that trio of forwards with 15:24 in even strength ice time per game.  Alex Ovechkin, in perhaps his most productive (in an efficiency sense) postseason ever, is fifth among the 12 forwards to dress so far with 14:36 in even strength ice time per game.  The last member of that top line trio – Evgeny Kuznetsov – is averaging only 11:55 at evens through three games, but that number is depressed by his skating just 4:26 (all at even strength) in Game 2 before departing with an injury.

-- More time on ice.  The defense so far reflects a distinct pecking order with respect to ice time.  At even strength, there is the top pair of Matt Niskanen and Dmitry Orlov, who are averaging 22:58 and 22:27 in even strength ice time per game, respectively.  Then there is the second pair – John Carlson (19:56) and Michal Kempny (18:07) – followed by the third pair of Brooks Orpik (11:59) and Christian Djoos (8:57).  The stratification extends to average shift time.  Niskanen and Orlov are averaging 56 second per shift overall apiece.  Then there is the second pair (Carlson at 51 seconds, Kempny at 47 seconds) and the third pair (Orpik at 46 seconds and Djoos at 34 seconds).

-- Speaking of defense, there might be an as-yet untapped vein of potential production there.  Through three games, neither Orlov nor Niskanen have a point.

-- The Caps are extending a pleasant team stat into the first three games of this series.  In the opening round against Columbus, the Caps outscored the Blue Jackets at even strength, 14-13.  Against Pittsburgh in the second round, the Caps had a 15-9 goals edge over the Penguins.  In Round 3 against Tampa Bay, the even strength goals edge for the Caps over the Lightning was 19-9.  Through three games of this series, the Caps have a 9-7 edge in even strength goals.

-- There is an “all-in” character with this team that shows up in the “grittership” stats.  For example, 17 of 18 skaters have been credited with blocked shots (Evgeny Kuznetsov is the lone skater without one).  All 18 skaters have at least one credited hit.  Nine of the 18 skaters have a takeway-to-giveaway ratio of at least 1.00:1.

-- Devante Smith-Pelly scored the big insurance goal in Game 3.  It was his first shot on goal of the series.  In fact, he’s scored on his last two shots on goal.  His last shot/goal came in Game 6 against Tampa Bay on what would be another insurance goal, bumping a 1-0 lead to 2-0 on the way to a 3-0 Caps win.

-- Balance, balance, balance.  Nine Caps share the ten goals scored through three games (Ovechkin has two).  Fourteen skaters have points, six of them tied for the team lead with three.  Seven players have a shooting percentage of 20 percent or better.

-- The goaltending battle between Braden Holtby and Marc-Andre Fleury is slowly tilting in favor of Holtby.  Both he and Fleury had difficult times in Game 1, Holtby stopping just 28 of 33 shots (.848 save percentage) and Fleury turning aside 24 of 28 shots (.857).  But where Holtby has stepped up his game considerably in Games 2 and 3 (combined .951 save percentage). Fleury has continued to struggle (.885 combined save percentage). 

-- In fact, Fleury is under .900 in save percentage in all three games, the first time he has gone three consecutive games under .900 in the postseason since he went three straight games under .900 against the New York Rangers in their second round series in 2014.  Fleury had gone 40 consecutive playoff games without suffering three in a row with a save percentage under .900.  Caps fans will be hoping the pattern Fleury followed in that 2014 instance is a case of history repeating itself.  Fleury won the first game in that 2014 string before dropping two in a row.  He lost a third consecutive game and had a fourth straight game without topping .900 in save percentage, stopping 18 of 20 shots (.900) in a 2-1 loss that ended the Penguins’ season.

A few overall notes…

-- Last night the Caps played in their 22nd game of this postseason, surpassing their previous high in games played in a single postseason, 21 in 1998.

-- The Caps are averaging 3.45 goals per game in this postseason, their highest goals-per-game in a postseason since 1995 (3.71 per game in seven games).  Their goal differential per game (plus-0.90) is second best for a postseason in team history (1986: plus-1.33 in nine games)

-- Washington’s 27.3 percent power play to date is their third best in the postseason in franchise history.  The 1993 team was 34.6 percent in six games, and the 2001 club was 31.8 percent in six games.

-- Until this postseason, only John Druce recorded more than ten goals in a single postseason for the Caps (14 goals in 1990).  The Caps have two such players in this postseason.   Alex Ovechkin tied Druce for the most in a single postseason with his goal to open the scoring in Game 3.  Evgeny Kuznetsov’s goal  -- the game-winner in Game 3 – was his 12th of this postseason.  Should Ovechkin score another, he will tie Sidney Crosby for the most in a single postseason since 2005-2006 (15 in 2009).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had the game-winning goal in Game 3, making him the fifth Capital with two game-winning goals in this postseason.  Nine Caps share the 14 game-winners.  That Jay Beagle, Devante Smith-Pelly, and Brooks Orpik are among those nine skaters says something about the balance and depth the Caps have had in this postseason.

In the end...

It is "first to four" not "first to two."  But getting to two in three games is a lot better than having to win three of the last four games of this series to win it.  The Caps are in an enviable position, but that can change in 60 minutes.  It puts a premium on putting the Game 3 win in the rear view mirror and focusing on Monday night.

Photo: Jim Rogash/Getty Images