Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Not All Playoffs are the Same: Part VII

One of the things we have been looking back on over the summer is the history of postseason disappointments and pleasant surprises in the Rock the Red era of the Washington Capitals.  There have been seven postseason appearances by the Caps, and we have reviewed six of them.  Now, the last and the one filled with the most pleasant surprise of all...getting there in the first place.


1.  2008: “We never give up, no matter what happen….”

By the time the 2007-2008 season started, the Washington Capitals had endured the good, the bad, and the uncertain over the four and a half years since their last playoff appearance.  After dropping an opening round series in 2003 to the Tampa Bay Lightning – losing in triple overtime at home in Game 6 – the Caps family worked their way through what might be the five stages of “rebuilding” in modern sports…

Anger.  Team ownership, perhaps caught up in the emotions of the aftermath of the team’s loss to the Lightning, expressed the opinion that “…the market has spoken and I have some real re-evaluating to do on the kind of investments we're going to make in the team, because the city didn't respond. You cannot have a playoff game with 14,000 people with the kind of marketing and consumer focus that we've had." 

Denial.  Despite a 1-7-1-1 start the next season, there were those who thought the team had too much talent to be saddled with that record.  Caps forward Mike Grier said as much…. “"We've got too much talent out there for it to keep going the way it is…"

Realization.  In early December, the Caps lost to the Colorado Rockies, 4-1, their third straight loss that left them with an 8-18-1-1 record that was 14th in the 15-team Eastern Conference.  The Caps then fired head coach Bruce Cassidy in favor of Glen Hanlon.  It was not the last move that the team would make.  
  • In January they traded Jaromir Jagr to the New York Rangers for Anson Carter. 
  • In the space of nine days in February they traded Peter Bondra to the Ottawa Senators for Brooks Laich and a 2005 second round draft pick, then traded Robert Lang (the league’s leading overall scorer at the time) to the Detroit Red Wings for Tomas Fleischmann and a 2004 first round draft pick (later to become Mike Green).
  • On consecutive days in March they traded Sergei Gonchar to the Boston Bruins for defenseman Shaone Morrisonn and both a 2004 first and second round pick (the former later to be Jeff Schultz); then traded Michael Nylander to the Bruins for a second round draft pick.
  • Later in March they traded Carter to the Los Angeles Kings for Jared Aulin and traded Greir to the Buffalo Sabres for Jakub Klepis.
Out with the old (expensive, underperforming), in with the new (cheap, promising).  The Caps were, for all intents and purposes, an expansion team.

Good Fortune.  Tearing out the old structure to the studs and foundation is one thing, but it helps to get some luck along the way, too.  The Caps got that in a big way in the 2004 draft lottery.  Having the league’s third-worst record in 2003-2004, the Caps would have picked third in the 2004 entry draft in the absence of a lottery.  But, with a lottery in place, the ping-pong ball came up “Capitals,” and the team had the rights to draft one of the most highly thought of amateur prospects in recent memory, winger Alex Ovechkin, a player who was already being compared to Mario Lemieux

Uncertainty.  Even with the prodigy from Russia, who scored two goals in his NHL debut in 2005, the Caps were not a very good team and had a lot of work to do, on and off the ice.  In 2005-2006 Ovechkin recorded a 52-goal rookie campaign (third in the league), but the Caps finished last in the Southeast Division and 14th in the Eastern Conference with a 29-41-12 record, making it the first time since 1982 that the Caps finished consecutive seasons without topping 70 standings points.  It did not work out any better the following season.  In 2006-2007, Ovechkin finished with 46 goals (fourth in the league), but the Caps finished 28-40-14, another season not topping 70 points.

And that brings us to the 2007-2008 season.  Despite adding a number of pieces – Tom Poti, Viktor Kozlov, and Michael Nylander (in his second tour with the club) being the principal additions – there were not a lot of prognosticators picking the Capitals to win the Southeast Division or otherwise reach the postseason. There was one prognosticator who had the Caps playing in the spring, but he’s widely regarded as an idiot.  

The consensus view of the Caps being a non-factor in the playoff race was set aside as the season started with three consecutive wins.  However, the NHL season being 82 games in length, there was still ample opportunity for things to go bad.  They did.

The Caps went 3-14-1 in their next 18 games, failing to win consecutive games in the process, ending with an especially ugly 5-1 loss at home to the Atlanta Thrashers on the night before Thanksgiving before an announced crowd of less than 12,000.  Hours later, the Caps relieved Glen Hanlon of his head coaching duties and replaced him with Hershey Bears coach Bruce Boudreau on an interim basis.

It would be nice to say that the change bore immediate dividends, and in a way it did – the Caps beat the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime in Boudreau’s debut.  However, the Boudreau tenure began with the Caps going 3-3-1 in his first seven games.  Enough to stop the bleeding perhaps, the three wins being as many as the Caps had in Hanlon’s last 18 games, but much more would have to be done to drag the Caps out of 15th and last place in the Eastern Conference after that seven-game start for Boudreau and into playoff contention.

Boudreau and the Caps did just that.  Starting with a 6-3 win over the Thrashers on December 8th, the Caps went 40 games without losing consecutive contests in regulation, posting a record of 23-11-6.  However, given the depth of the hole out of which they had to climb, their 32-28-8 record on March 5th was still second in the Southeast Division and 10th in the Eastern Conference.  They were nipping at the heels of those in front of them, though, just three points behind the division-leading Carolina Hurricanes and just two points behind the conference’s eighth-place team, the Philadelphia Flyers, for a wild-card playoff spot.

Along the way in this run the Caps made some additions for a sprint to the finish that seemed unthinkable three months earlier.  General Manager George McPhee sent forward Matt Pettinger to the Vancouver Canucks for forward Matt Cooke, and he sent prospect defenseman Theo Ruth to the Columbus Blue jackets for veteran forward and hall-of-famer in waiting Sergei Fedorov.  In what might have been the most controversial move at the time, though, McPhee sent a 2009 second round draft pick to the Montreal Canadiens for goaltender Cristobal Huet.

The move seemed odd, given that the number one goaltending spot was manned by Olaf Kolzig, who came into the season having held that position for nine years and had a total of 276 wins for the Caps over 15 seasons in all, leading the team to a Stanley Cup final in 1998.  However, the Kolzig of 2007-2008 was showing signs of age.  Less than two months shy of his 37th birthday when the trade was made, he had a record of 21-19-6, 3.03, .888, and did not have a shutout since posting one in his first game of the season back in October.

It was not as if Huet was playing lights out when the trade was made; if he was, the Canadiens might not have parted with him or had the need to do so  (Montreal still finished with the best record in the East).  Before the trade, Huet was 21-12-6, 2.55, .916, with two shutouts.  Good, but not great numbers.

Huet’s tenure in Washington got off to a bumpy start.  He shutout the New Jersey Devils on 18 shots in his first game, but he had to leave his second game -- more often remembered for the 10 goals the Caps recorded in a 10-2 pasting of the Boston Bruins – with back spasms.  Then he lost consecutive decisions in back-to-back games against the Bruins and the Pittsburgh Penguins (the latter a loss coming on Nicklas Backstrom shooting the puck into his own net with less than a half minute to play). 

Perhaps it was the half smokes of DC finally kicking in, though, because Huet then proceeded to play…well, smokin’ hot after that rocky start.  He stopped 39 of 40 shots, plus both shots he saw in the freestyle competition, in his third game against the Bruins in five appearances with the Caps, a 2-1 Gimmick win.  He followed that up with a 24-save win over the Nashville Predators.

At that point, the Caps faced a situation that could have cratered their comeback and their season.  On March 19th, with the Caps providing the competition for the Chicago Blackhawks on a night saluting hall of fame goalie Tony Esposito, the Caps provided little competition for the Blackhawks and no help to Olaf Kolzig, back in goal for the Caps.  The Blackhawks recorded four shots in the first 81 seconds of the game, broke through on their fifth shot, then their eighth shot, and then their 12th shot.  It was 3-0 less than ten minutes into the game and 4-0 by the end of the first period.  Chicago scored another goal 10:19 into the second period and coasted from there to a 5-0 win over the Capitals.  Kolzig was in for all of it, allowing all five goals on 42 shots.  It would be his last game as a Capital.

Huet returned to the nets two nights later in Atlanta and promptly struggled.  The Thrashers spotted the Caps a goal in the first period, then touched up Huet for three goals in the second to take a 3-1 lead into the third period.  Washington got one back on Alex Ovechkin’s  second goal of the game, then they got two goals from Nicklas Backstrom 32 seconds apart to take the lead late in the third period.  An empty net goal by Boyd Gordon completed the scoring in the 5-3 comeback win, and it started the Caps on a 7-0-0 finish to the regular season (Huet playing in all seven games) to pass the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division title and a three-seed in the postseason.  From that 15th place spot in the Eastern Conference back on December 7th, the Caps went 34-14-6 to end the season.

The Caps drew the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round of the postseason.  The Flyers, who were the six-seed, finished the regular season with 95 standings points to 94 for the Caps.  The teams split four regular season games, but in a strange twist, all of the wins were registered on the road, the Caps winning twice in Philadelphia and the Flyers doing so twice in Washington.  They also had virtually identical scoring offense (Caps: 2.90 goals/game, ranked 8th; Flyers: 2.99/6th) and scoring defense (Caps: 2.77/T-12th; Flyers: 2.77/T-12th).  It had the look of a long series.

Game 1 started in the strangest of ways, then ended in a most reliable fashion.  If you were betting on which Capital would be first to score a goal in the 2008 playoffs, you might have safely bet on Alex Ovechkin, he of the 65 goals scored in the regular season (a record for left wingers).  Or perhaps Alexander Semin, who finished with 26 goals.  Or even Mike Green, who finished second among the league’s defensemen with 18 goals.  But Donald Brashear?   The former Flyer had just five goals in 80 regular season games, but there he was pouncing on a loose puck to the left of goalie Martin Biron and stuffing it inside the post before Biron could lunge across to glove it down just 3:16 into the game.

The goal might have had more effect on the Caps than on the Flyers, and not in a good way.  Philadelphia tied the game on a Vaclav Prospal goal eight minutes into the period, and then, after David Steckel put the Caps back in front early in the second period, the Flyers scored three goals in less than four minutes to take a 4-2 lead into the second intermission.

A more normal scoring profile then took over to manage the Capitals comeback.  Mike Green scored goals less than five minutes apart early in the period to tie the game, assists by Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Semin, Alex Ovechkin, and Nicklas Backstrom.  The Caps could not get that tie-breaking goal, though, as the game ticked down to five minutes left in regulation.  It would be the Flyers making the mistake, though, not the young Capitals.  With the Flyers going for a line change, Kimmo Timonen held the puck behind the Flyers’ net.  He decided upon a pass up the right side to Jaroslav Modry, but the pass got there just as Alex Ovechkin stepped up.  Ovechkin slapped the puck off Modry’s stick, and when it bounced past Timonen, Ovechkin pounced on it.  He was patient enough to wait for Biron to commit, and when he did, Ovechkin roofed the puck into the net for his first career playoff goal.  It would be the game-winner in the Caps’ 5-4 comeback win in Game 1.

Lost in the celebration of the Game 1 win was the fact that Cristobal Huet allowed four goals on 22 shots, the first time he allowed four goals in a game as a Capital.  It would not be the last.  Huet was strong in Game 2, allowing just two goals on 41 shots, but it was two too many as Biron shut out Washington, 2-0, to send the series to Philadelphia tied at a game apiece.  It was Biron’s third shutout in four games, dating back to the regular season, which he closed with a pair of shutouts.  The “hot goaltender” that haunted the Caps throughout their history was rising again.

Biron was not quite as sharp in Games 3 and 4 in Philadelphia, but he did not have to be.  Huet’s magic was wearing thin.  He allowed five goals on 32 shots in a 6-3 loss in Game 3, then followed that up with a four goals on 46 shots in a 4-3 double-overtime loss in Game 4.  The problem was that first periods were killing Huet, and the Caps.  In the first four games, Huet stopped just 30 of 38 first period shots, a .789 save percentage.

Back in Washington for Game 5, the Capitals’ defense lent a hand in defense of Huet, allowing the Flyers only four shots in the first period.  Huet stopped all of them, and Nicklas Backstrom got the Caps on the board first – the first time they scored first since Game 1 – with a power play goal.  With the Flyers paying close attention to Alexander Semin holding the puck on the left side, Backstrom snuck in low, to the left of Biron, and tapped in Semin’s feed from the opposite side. 

Sergei Fedorov doubled the Caps lead less than two minutes in the second period, and the Caps had their first two-goal lead of the series.  They could not build on that, though, and the Flyers got within one when Vaclav Prospal scored in the last second of a 5-on-3 power play advantage.

When Alexander Semin scored his second of the series on a power play with barely five minutes left, it looked as if the Caps would live to play a Game 6 in Philadelphia.  However, Derian Hatcher scored for the Flyers less than a minute after the Semin goal, and things were tense once more.  Huet slammed the door after that, stopping all six Flyer shots he faced in the last four minutes, and the teams would make good on their date for Game 6 in Philadelphia.

Early on in Game 6 it looked as if the Caps' journey would end in a sea of orange.  Matt Bradley took an interference penalty less than three minutes into the game, and Mike Richards converted the power play opportunity to give the Flyers the lead 3:49 into the game.  Having lost all three games in which they allowed the game’s first goal, things looked bleak for the Caps.  It got worse in the second minute of the second period.  An Alexander Semin cross-checking goal late in the first period carried over into the second period, and Daniel Briere scored with just four seconds left on the power play to give the Flyers a 2-0 lead. 

At that point, Game 6 turned into a microcosm of the Caps’ regular season.  Having dug themselves a deep hole, they slowly and methodically climbed out of it.  Nicklas Backstrom finished a superb three-man rush that started in the other end of the ice with a breakout pass from Steve Eminger behind his own goal line up to Brooks Laich cruising ahead through the neutral zone.  Laich skated down the middle over the Flyers’ line and left the puck for Semin on his left.  Semin fed the puck over to Backstrom, back to Semin, and back to Backstrom one more time for the shot over Biron’s blocker to make it 2-1.

The Caps tied the game with less than two minutes left in the middle period after pressing the Flyers hard in their own end.  After pinning the Flyers in and preventing the puck from exiting the zone, John Erskine fired from the left point.  Biron did not catch the puck in his glove cleanly, and it fell to the ice where Semin grabbed it, circled around the fallen Biron, and wristed it into the back of the net to tie the game.

Early in the third period, the Caps took the lead.  With the Flyers putting pressure on the Caps in their zone, Kimmo Timonen tried to lift a shot to the Washington net.  It was deflected by Ovechkin, the puck sliding to Viktor Kozlov in the high slot.  Kozlov fed the puck out of the zone to Ovechkin streaking up the middle.  Ovechkin skated in and wasted few moves before flipping a forehand past Biron’s glove to make it 3-2, Caps, 2:46 into the final period. 

It would be the Flyers making the fatal error to seal the outcome.  In the 11th minute of the period they took a too many men on the ice penalty to put the Caps on a power play.  The Caps, who had power play goals in four of the five previous games, had drawn a blank in Game 6 with the man advantage.  It took just 22 seconds to remedy that situation.  Sergei Fedorov tried to carry the puck into the Flyer zone, but it rolled off the end of his stick.  The veteran did not give up on the play, though, and pressured defenseman Braydon Coburn into giving up the puck to Brooks Laich along the right wing wall.  Laich curled into the faceoff circle and spied Ovechkin across the ice.  He fed the puck across, and in what would become a signature part of his game, Ovechkin one-timed the puck from the left wing faceoff circle past Biron for the final, 4-2 margin, sending the series back to Washington for Game 7.

Game 7 was the back half of a back-to-back set of games for the clubs, a situation that one might have thought would benefit the Caps, getting the opportunity to fly back into town to sleep in their own beds rather than bus to a hotel.  And, when Nicklas Backstrom scored a power play goal with less than six minutes gone in the contest, it certainly did look good for the Caps.

Joy turned to dread, though, as the Flyers turned a power play goal by Scottie Upshall late in the first period and a goal by Sami Kapanen mid-way through the second frame into a 2-1 Flyer lead.  The Kapanen goal was one – is one – that Caps fans will argue never should have counted.  It started when Martin Biron fed the puck from just outside his own crease to Patrick Thoresen skating down the left side through the neutral zone.  He sent the puck across to Kapanen in the right wing faceoff circle and continued to the net.  There, Thoresen shouldered defenseman Shaone Morrisonn into Huet, and the three players went to the ice in a heap, allowing Kapanen to shoot the puck into an open net to a chorus of boos from fans irate at the call of a good goal.

Ovechkin reset things with a game-tying goal with less than five minutes in the second period.  As a penalty to Steve Downie was expiring to end a Capitals power play, Ovechkin took advantage of a Capital and a Flyer tangled up at the Flyers’ blue line to grab a loose puck, skate into the left wing circle, and snap a shot past Biron’s glove on the long side.

That would be all of the scoring in regulation, Huet and Biron keeping their nets undisturbed in the third period.  In the overtime, just over four minutes in, R.J. Umberger was exiting the Flyers’ zone in front of the players bench.  Tom Poti tried to poke the puck off Umberger’s stick and got his skate instead.  It was little more than a love tap that did not deny a scoring opportunity, not the sort of thing you might expect to see called in overtime of a Game 7 (a point of view written by a Caps fan, to be fair), but Umberger sold it, the referee bought it, and the Flyers had a power play.

The Capitals almost killed it off…almost.  There was a faceoff to the left of Huet.  Sergei Fedorov and Daniel Briere tied one another up on the draw, and Joffrey Lupul chased the puck down below the Caps’ goal line.  He fed the puck around the boards to Mike Richards to turned and fed Briere between the hash marks for a shot.  Huet blocked the drive out to the point where Kimmo Timonen settled the puck and fired.  Huet made the stop, but he looked to his left for the puck when the rebound skittered out to his right.  It was enough time for Lupul to sneak underneath Shaone Morrisonn to backhand the puck into the open net and end the Capitals’ season.

The Caps’ first taste of postseason play in five years seemed to end barely after it began.  But what a journey it was to get there.  Given up for dead in December, a team that was too young to realize it could not come back did just that, with the help of a wily veteran who would end up creating a memory of his own and for Caps fans in the following season in the playoffs. 

This team would be a treat to watch over the last four months of the regular season.  The last two months would be insane.  As the season wound down, and “Don’t Stop Believin’” blared over the Verzon Center loudspeakers after a Caps win, it still did not seem quite possible.  But then the Caps completed their comeback, and as Alex Ovechkin put it in the aftermath of the season’s last game – the playoff clincher for the Caps:
Even the disappointment of a Game 7 loss to a hated rival could not diminish that.  As we wrote at the time:

"They gave us one helluva ride…

A 37-17-7 record after Thanksgiving.

A season for the ages from Alexander Ovechkin

The “young guns” stepping up in a big way to make this their team – Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom – after the club lost its captain, its top center, and a top-four defenseman to injury for more than half the season.

An unexpected year from Brooks Laich, who wasn’t even supposed to be here…or at least the thinking went last summer.

A hockey lifer with a twinkle in his eye finally getting a chance to coach behind an NHL bench, and grabbing that chance by the throat to be considered a potential coach-of-the-year candidate.

A roll of the dice by a general manager with the nickname, “The Undertaker,” to bring hockey royalty, a few sheets of sandpaper, and goaltending insurance to the club for a stretch run that will be remembered long after the handshakes of this series are forgotten.

A sea of red replacing a desert of empty seats.

The experience of sound taking form and substance…

…this morning we’re sad at the result, but not disappointed in this team. Unlike past heartbreaks, when the Capitals team that lost did so as underachievers, this one fought tooth and nail for two months without a hint of quit in them. They grew before our eyes and came within an eyelash of giving us another two weeks (or, who knows…more) of memories. Although it’s small consolation to the players, coaches, staff, and fans of the club this morning, they achieved far more than anyone had a right to expect as we were sitting down to Thanksgiving dinner last November, and for that…

Bless you boys.”

Bless you boys, indeed.  Yours was the most pleasant surprise and memorable effort in the Rock the Red era.

Photo: Len Redkoles/Getty Images North America

Monday, August 24, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Memorable Goals: The Most Memorable of All

We are down to the last of our look at memorable goals in the history of the Washington Capitals franchise.  This one sent the Capitals to a place to which they had never been and one to which they have yet to return.


June 4, 1998: “…to go where no Capital has gone before.”

For 14 seasons, the Washington Capitals were the little engine that almost could.  In each of those seasons, starting with the 1982-1983 campaign, they reached the playoffs, but there their hopes would founder, undone by a hot goaltender, an inopportune bounce, or just not being quite good enough.  In those 14 seasons the Caps reached the second round five times and the conference final once.  Never did they play for the big prize, the Stanley Cup.

The 1996-1997 team would be the one to break the streak of playoff appearances.  Not that it was entirely their fault.  It was a team wracked by injury.  Only Dale Hunter among 34 skaters playing that season managed to appear in all 82 games.  Only Ken Klee among the rest would appear in as many as 80 games.  Only ten skaters appeared in more than 60 games.  The defense was especially impacted by the injury bug; Mark Tinordi and Sergei Gonchar missed a total of 51 man-games.

Then there was the mystery of goaltender Jim Carey.  A first team NHL all-rookie team goalie in 1995, an NHL first team all-star in 1996, and the Vezina Trophy winner as outstanding goaltender in 1996, Carey appeared poised to become an elite goaltender for the Caps for the next decade.  However, his postseason struggles in 1995 and 1996, when he went a combined 2-5 with a 4.62 goals against average and a .816 save percentage, spread into his regular season performance in 1996-1997. 

Carey went 9-6-1, 2.49, .899 in his fist 16 appearances of that season, wrapping it up with a 27-save shutout of the Montreal Canadiens.  That shutout would be the high watermark of his season and perhaps for the rest of his NHL career.  He lost his next five decisions and would go 8-12-2, 2.93, .889 in 24 appearances before he was traded at the end of February with Anson Carter, Jason Allison, and a third-round draft pick to the Boston Bruins for goaltender Bill Ranford, Adam Oates, and Rick Tocchet.

It would be the only major deal that the Caps would make at the trading deadline in 1997, but it would not be the last of their personnel changes.  In June, following the Caps’ 33-40-9 finish, general manager David Poile was relieved in favor of George McPhee, and head coach Jim Schoenfeld was relieved in favor of Ron Wilson.  It was part of a general housecleaning of the club in advance of its moving from US Airways Arena in Landover, Maryland, for a new facility – MCI Center (now Verizon Center) – in downtown Washington.

The actual move to their new arena would not take place until early December of the 1997-1998 season, so the Capitals had a chance to bid their old digs in Maryland farewell.  Unfortunately, the Caps’ performance leading up to their move looked too much like their performance from the preceding season.  In the season opener, the Caps visited Maple Leaf Gardens in Toronto, and things got off to a difficult start right away.  Bill Ranford started the contest as the Caps’ new number one netminder, but he took a Per Gustafsson shot to the groin in the first period. 

Ranford finished the period, stopping 16 of the 17 shots he faced, but he could not return for the second period.  In his place came Olaf Kolzig, a former first round draft pick who, in parts of six seasons, gave little indication that his selection as a first round draft pick was justified (14-36-8, 2.99, .891).  However, there were hints of things to come.  Starting with a three-game run in January of the 1996-1997 season in which he want 2-0-1 and stopped 71 of 72 shots (.986 save percentage) with two shutouts, Kolzig had a 2.37 goals against average and a .910 save percentage over his last 16 appearances. And, there was his playoff record in relief of the struggling Carey in the previous two postseasons, a 1.87 goals against average and a .936 save percentage, including a 62-save effort in a four-overtime loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1996.

Kolzig, now 27 years of age, was ready to take the reins.  By season’s end he was tied for ninth in total appearances (64), ninth in minutes (3,788), tied for third in wins (33), fourth in save percentage (.920), and tied for ninth in shutouts (5).  And Ranford was the backup, the “Wally Pipp” to Kolzig’s “Lou Gehrig,” the Caps number one goaltender for the next decade.

Meanwhile, as things were settling down in goal, the Caps struggled well into the second half of the season.  Not even moving into their new arena and christening it with a 3-2 overtime win over the Florida Panthers did much to lift them out of their doldrums.  When they lost to the Philadelphia Flyers, 3-2, on March 5th, they were 26-24-11.  They were not necessarily in jeopardy of missing the playoffs – they were third in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference with 64 points, nine points clear of the New York Rangers – but they hardly looked as if they would do much damage in the postseason once they got there.

It was at this point that first year general manager George McPhee, whose biggest deal to date might have been to claim Jeff Toms off waivers from the Tampa Bay Lightning in November (he went on to score the game-winning overtime goal for the Caps in the first game at MCI Center the following month), made a pair of deals to try to lift the Caps out of their uninspired play.  On March 9th he obtained Esa Tikkanen from Florida for Dwayne Hay and the always popular “future considerations.”  Twelve days later he signed Brian Bellows from the Berlin (Germany) Capitals as a free agent.

In Tikkanen and Bellows, McPhee acquired more than 1,900 games of regular season experience and almost 300 games of postseason experience.  Whether the acquisitions helped the Caps in the stretch run of the regular season, they did not hurt.  The Caps went 13-6-1 after obtaining Tikkanen, 8-2-1 after signing Bellows.  The Caps finished 40-30-12, third in the Atlantic Division and the Eastern Conference’s fourth-seed heading to the playoffs.

The Caps drew the Boston Bruins in the first round.  After winning Game 1, 3-1, behind a 27-save effort from Kolzig and goals from both Tikkanen and Bellows, along with Sergei Gonchar, sudden misfortune nearly derailed the Caps before they got any further.  Early in Game 2, Peter Bondra, who tied for the league lead with 52 goals in the regular season, suffered an ankle injury that ended his night after five shifts and less than three minutes of ice time.  The Caps lost, 4-3 in double overtime, and headed to Boston in jeopardy of not having their top offensive weapon available.

At that point, Kolzig put the team on his back.  He stopped 52 of 54 shots in a 3-2 double-overtime win in Game 3 that was not without its controversy.  An apparent game-winning goal by P.J. Axelsson in the first overtime was waved off for a teammate’s skate being in the crease.  Joe Juneau won it for the Caps in the seventh minute of the second overtime to end a streak of seven consecutive postseason losses in overtime by the Caps, dating back to a 5-4 overtime win against the New York Rangers in the first round of the 1991 postseason.

If Kolzig was great in Game 3, he was better in Game 4.  He stopped all 38 shots he faced in a 3-0 Caps win, Kolzig’s first career playoff shutout.  In Game 5, however, the tables turned.  After four straight games in which the Caps went out to 2-0 leads in the series, they could not muster any goals against Byron Dafoe, and the Bruins won, 4-0, to send the series back to Boston one more time for Game 6.  For the third time in the series a game would go to overtime. Brian Bellows ended it 15:41 into the extra period when his 50-footer skipped past Dafoe to send the Caps to the second round against the Ottawa Senators.

The Senators finished barely above .500 in the regular season (34-33-15) and were the eighth-seed in the first round of the playoffs.  However, they dispatched the team with the top record in the Eastern Conference, the New Jersey Devils (48-23-11, the only team in the East to finish with more than 100 points in the standings), in six games.

Lightning would not strike twice for the Senators.  They looked every bit like an eighth-seed team as the Caps eliminated them in five games, outscoring the Senators, 18-7, while Kolzig stopped 134 of 141 shots (.950 save percentage) and shut out the Senators in Games 4 and 5 to close out the series.

For the second time in franchise history, the Caps advanced to the conference final. Their first, in 1990, ended quickly and quietly, a sweep in four games at the hands of the Boston Bruins.  This time their opponent would be the Buffalo Sabres, making their third trip to the conference final in franchise history and looking to make their second appearance in the Stanley Cup final (they lost in six games to Philadelphia in 1975).  To get this far to face the Caps they beat the Flyers in five games in the opening round, and then they swept Montreal in four games in the second round.

If Washington had an advantage in goal with Boston having used Byron Dafoe, and the Senators using Ron Tugnutt and Damien Rhodes, they would have no such advantage in this round.  Dominik Hasek tied for the league lead in games played (72) and led in minutes played (4,219).  His 33 wins tied Kolzig for third place, while his goals against average was fourth (2.09), and his save percentage was first (.932).  He had 13 shutouts, more than any goaltender in a single season since Tony Esposito had 15 for the Chicago Blackhawks in the 1969-1970 season.

If the Caps did have an advantage, it was in getting Peter Bondra back full time.  His ankle injury and then a head injury earlier in the postseason limited him to playing in only seven of the Caps’ 11 games through two rounds.  Unfortunately, he did not make his presence felt in Game 1 at MCI Center, but then neither did his teammates, as the Sabres grabbed home ice advantage with a 2-0 win. 

Game 2 was one of the more entertaining games, in an odd sort of way, in Capitals playoff history.  It happened to be on a night on which President Bill Clinton took in his first live hockey game.  Neither he nor the fans in attendance would be disappointed (even if the President left early).  Buffalo scored first, in the last minute of the first period.  Then, after a most of what had been to that point a largely uneventful second period, things took a turn.  With the Capitals on a power play, defenseman Phil Housley lifted a harmless looking floater toward the Buffalo net.  Hasek reached out to glove the puck, but it never got there.  Peter Bondra redirected the puck over Hasek’s shoulder to tie the game with five seconds left in the period:


The careful observer should note, as the Sabres tried to do with referee Kerry Fraser, that the goal should not have counted.  Bondra’s left skate is clearly in the blue paint when he makes contact with the puck.  Fraser did not overturn the call, and the Caps and Sabres went to the third period tied, 1-1.  That was not all for the hijinks, though.  After Joe Juneau gave the Caps the lead in the third period, Bondra and Hasek would renew their acquaintances.  With less than five minutes left in regulation, Bondra was chasing down a loose puck sliding toward the Sabres’ goal line.  Hasek came out to collect the puck, but he got there just before Bondra.  As Hasek was backhanding the puck off the side boards, Bondra collided with him, sending Hasek tumbling into the corner.  With Bondra turned around and heading back up ice, Hasek got to his feet and hurled his blocker at Bondra. 


It touched off a scrum that involved all ten skaters, but ended up yielding a power play for the Caps as the Sabres were called for an extra penalty.  Karma being what it is, the Caps failed to convert the power play, and it cost them in the last minute of regulation when Esa Tikkanen redirected a puck into his own net on a Sabres power play to tie the game, 2-2, at the end of regulation.

There would be one more bit of controversy.  Three minutes into the overtime period, the Caps sent the puck deep into the Buffalo end.  What appeared to be an icing infraction was not called as such, and Andrei Nikolishin got to the puck along the right wing boards.  He sent the puck across to Todd Krygier heading down the middle, and Krygier beat Hasek to give the Caps a split at home with the 3-2 overtime win.

Games 4 and 5 continued a pattern for the Caps.  Just as they did in the opening round series, they swept those games on enemy ice.  In doing so, they relied heavily on Kolzig in goal.  In Games 3 and 4 of the first two rounds, Kolzig was 3-1, 1.36, .963, with two shutouts.  In Games 3 and 4 in Buffalo, he stopped 57 of 60 shots (.950 save percentage) and had a goals against of 1.39, winning both decisions, including a 4-3 overtime win in Game 3.

Unfortunately, the Caps could not close out an opponent in Game 5 for the second time in three series as they fell to the Sabres at home, 2-1.  It set up a return to Buffalo, where the Sabres had yet to beat the Caps after winning their first four home games of the postseason.

Game 6 was one of those games that does not need embellishment or made-up stories about inspiration.  Nevertheless there was a backstory to this game that would have been hard to make up.  Before the game, Ron Wilson used the subject of the 1969 Apollo 11 moon landing mission for his talk to the team.  For one of the players, the talk might have had special meaning.  Joe Juneau played for four seasons with the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers hockey team, where he compiled 69 goals and 213 points in 124 games.  He also earned a degree in aeronautical engineering from RPI.  He remarked to Wilson that, “I’m a rocket scientist…I’ll be Neil Armstrong,” a reference to the commander of the Apollo 11 mission and first man to step onto the moon.

As had been the case in this series to this point, though, it was the goalies who dominated.  Olaf Kolzig and Dominik Hasek stopped everything they saw over the game’s first 33 minutes.  Then, Buffalo drew first blood.  Michael Peca one-timed a drop pass from Dixon Ward past Kolzig with just under seven minutes left in the second period to make it 1-0.  However, on the next shift it was Hasek’s turn to blink.  Esa Tikkanen redirected a Mark Tinordi shot past Hasek to make it 1-1, where the teams left it at the second intermission.

Buffalo fans might have thought their team was heading back to Washington for a series-deciding game when Paul Kruse scored in the eighth minute of the third period to give the Sabres a 2-1 lead.  Peter Bondra put an end to that thinking, at least temporarily, when he redirected an Andrei Nikolishin feed past Hasek with just less than six minutes to play in regulation.

Neither team could get that third goal in regulation, so they went to overtime, the sixth overtime contest for the Caps in 17 games in this postseason, and the sixth in 15 postseason contests for the Sabres.  What had to be scratching gently in the Sabres’ heads was that the Caps had won both overtime contests in this series so far, one in Washington and one in Buffalo.  The Sabres looked to end soon, however, but Kolzig stopped a Jason Woolley attempt early in the period, and he foiled Vaclav Varada on a breakaway later.

The Capitals would get their chance in the seventh minute of the overtime…


So many little things often make a big thing.  There was Darryl Shannon whiffing on an attempted pass from his own blue line that allowed Joe Juneau to swoop in and collect the puck.  There was Juneau being patient not to jump into the offensive zone with teammate Adam Oates still in the zone, which would have stopped the play on an offside.  There was Brian Bellows filling a hole in the defense and giving Juneau a passing option.  There was Juneau not giving up on the play as Bellows circled in around Shannon to take several whacks at the puck from the top of the crease.  There was the Buffalo defense paying such close attention to Bellows – three defenders converged on him – that it opened enough space for Juneau to sneak in on the weak side of the play.  There was Michal Grosek frantically trying to get back to tie up Juneau before Juneau had any chance to jump on a loose puck.  There was Hasek down on the ice desperately trying to smother the puck with his glove and waiting for help that was too late to arrive.  And there was Juneau, gently pulling the puck away from one last lunge by Hasek and snapping it into the net a moment before Grosek arrived.

For the Caps, it was the fourth time in franchise history that a series ended on an overtime goal and the third straight time they came out victorious (after losing to the New York Islanders in Game 7 in the opening round of the 1987 playoffs they beat the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 7 of the 1988 opening round, and they defeated the New York Rangers in Game 5 of the second round of the 1990 postseason).  This, however, was different.  This was for the Prince of Wales Trophy, awarded to the Eastern Conference champion. 


Oh, and it was also for a trip to the Stanley Cup final, the first – and to date, only – time in Capitals history they played in a final.

The Caps would lose to the Detroit Red Wings in the final, and in one of hockey’s odd ironies, Juneau would be traded the following season by the Caps to the Sabres.  But on this night in Buffalo in early June of 1998, it was fitting that a rocket scientist named “Juneau” would send the Capitals where no Capital had gone before, and that is what makes this goal the most memorable of all.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Washington Capitals -- Not All Playoffs are the Same: Part VI

Two more to go in our look at the playoff history of the Rock the Red era in Washington Capitals hockey.  The penultimate review looks at a postseason that did not end differently than any number playoff appearances by the Caps, but more than many of those others, it begged an important question.


2. 2015: Finally getting it right after all these years?

“Stability" is not a word one would immediately use when characterizing Capitals hockey in the Rock the Red era of playoff appearances.  In the past eight seasons the Caps employed two general managers, five coaches, 99 skaters, 11 goaltenders, and appeared in the postseason seven times.  Four times they advanced to the second round of the playoffs but no further.  The last of those four appearances in the second round of the postseason came in 2015 after yet another off-season and regular season of twists and turns. 

The 2014-2015 season started almost as soon as the Caps finished their 2013-2014 season out of the playoffs for the first time since 2007.  On April 26, 2014, just 13 days after the Caps’ season came to a merciful end, the club relieved head coach Adam Oates of his responsibilities and announced that they would not retain the services of George McPhee as general manager.  In 17 years under McPhee’s management the Caps had a regular season record of 613-488-108, with 69 ties.  The team reached the postseason 10 times in 16 seasons (the 2004-2005 season lost to a labor-management dispute), advancing to the Stanley Cup final in McPhee’s first season but advancing as far as the second round only three times after that.

Oates, a Hall of Fame center who played parts of six seasons with the Caps, was excused after two seasons in which he posted a 65-48-17 record, reaching the playoffs in his first season where he and the Caps lost to the New York Rangers in seven games.  Whatever magic he worked in restoring Alex Ovechkin goal-scoring production in his first season at the helm (after moving him to right wing in the 2012-2013 seasion, Ovechkin recorded 32 goals in 48 games, a 55-goal pace over a full season), Oates looked out of his depth for most of his second season, overseeing a club that lost 12 of its last 21 games to fall out of playoff contention.

Exactly one month later, the Caps promoted Brian MacLellan from assistant general manager to the general manager position, and they hired Barry Trotz, formerly head coach of the Nashville Predators, to that position with the Caps.  In hiring Trotz, the Caps broke a string of five straight coaches hired without NHL head coaching experience (Bruce Cassidy, Glen Hanlon, Bruce Boudreau, Dale Hunter, and Oates).  If the moves looked incremental or safe, the team almost admitted as much.  As principal owner Ted Leonsis put it:
“While we felt we needed to make significant changes – and we did by moving on the GM and coach – we also didn’t feel we had to completely rebuild or start from scratch…” 
MacLellan and Trotz wasted little time putting their stamp on the club.  The coaching roster was filled out with the signing of Lane Lambert and Mitch Korn, both of whom served with Trotz in Nashville, and Todd Reirden, who had been an assistant with the Pittsburgh Penguins.  They joined Blaine Forsyth, Olaf Kolzig, and Scott Murray, who were retained in other coaching positions.

Then the player roster was addressed.  On the first day of the unrestricted free agency signing period, MacLellan signed defensemen Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen, formerly of the Penguins, and goaltender Justin Peters, formerly of the Carolina Hurricanes, to fill specific needs.  They were the highest profile signings by the club in the early days of free agency since perhaps 2011 (Joel Ward, Roman Hamrlik, Tomas Vokoun), and might have exceeded any early-July signing group assembled by MacLellan’s predecessor, George McPhee.

It was left to play the games.  The Caps started doing so under Trotz in successful fashion, going 4-1-2 in their first seven games.  Then they stumbled, losing five in a row to drop to 4-5-3.  They were struggling in an unexpected way.  In goal, Braden Holtby was 3-3-2, 2.67, .891, with one shutout, while backup Justin Peters was 1-2-1, 3.04, .880.  Despite Capital goaltenders facing fewer than 25 shots per 60 minutes (24.8, in fact), goalie coach Mitch Korn’s effect on them was yet to be felt in any obvious way.

The light seemed to go on over Holtby’s head shortly thereafter.  Starting with a 38-save win in a 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks on November 7th, Holtby would appear in 42 games and lose in regulation in consecutive appearances only once.  In those 42 games he went 26-9-7, 2.04, .931, with five shutouts.  He finished the season first in the league in appearances (73) and minutes (4,247), third in wins (41), fifth in goals against average (2.22), eighth in save percentage (.923), and tied for second in shutouts (9). 

On the other hand, Peters never really got out of the rut into which he fell to start the season. After that 1-2-1 start he would appear in just eight more games, finishing the season with a 3-6-1 record, a 3.25 goals against average, and a .881 save percentage.  His was the second worst goals against average in the league among goalies appearing in at least a dozen games, and his save percentage was last in that group.

Among the skaters, it was tempting to take for granted some performances, but they were excellent nonetheless,  Alex Ovechkin won his third straight (and fifth overall) Maurice Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer and improved his plus-minus from a widely ridiculed minus-35 in 2013-2014 to plus-10.  Nicklas Backstrom did what he has done from the moment he stepped on the ice for the Capitals in 2007 – average about a point per game (78 in 82 games).  Meanwhile, John Carlson took his place among the top-echelon of NHL defensemen, finishing the season having appeared in every game for the fifth straight season, 11th in goals among defensemen (12), tied for fifth in assists (43), tied for fifth in points (55), and second in even-strength points (38).

The Caps were blessed with good health as well, with seven skaters appearing in all 82 games and 12 appearing in at least 75 games.  The top four defensemen – Carlson, Niskanen, Orpik, and Karl Alzner – missed to total of only four games (all by Orpik).  Even Mike Green, whose mid-career had been plagued by a series of injuries, appeared in 72 games, his highest total since the 2009-2010 season (75).

It all came together for the Caps, enabling them to win 45 games and finish with 101 standings points, an improvement of seven wins and 11 points from the previous season.  Washington finished second in the Metropolitan Division, earning them home ice advantage in an opening round series against the New York Islanders.

For all the good it did the Capitals in Game 1.  In four games in the regular season between these two teams, the Caps and Isles won two games apiece.  Three of the four games went to extra  time.  Game 1 would not end that way, though.  The Islanders scored first on a Brock Nelson goal that Holtby might have wanted back six minutes into the game.  Marcus Johansson got the Caps back into the game late in the period by taking advantage of some hard work by Brooks Laich.  Mike Green started the play by working the puck up from behind the Caps’ net.  After it was swept deep into the Islander end, Laich beat two Islander defenders and goalie Jaroslav Halak to the puck.  Laich worked it around the boards in the corner, then saw Johansson filling in at the top of the right wing circle.  Johansson took the pass, curled to the dot, then ripped a wrist shot past Halak’s blocker to tie the game with 56.3 seconds left in the period.

It would be the last highlight for the Caps in Game 1.  Ryan Strome broke the tie less than four minutes into the second period, and Josh Bailey made it 3-1 seven minutes later.  Nelson added an empty net goal with 1:19 left in the contest, and the Isles grabbed home ice advantage with a 4-1 win.

Having lost Game 1 on home ice, the Caps needed a big rebound from everyone, especially goaltender Braden Holtby, who allowed three goals on 22 shots in Game 1.  Unfortunately, Holtby was, uh…indisposed with an illness that head coach Barry Trotz told reporters was “none of your business, really.”  That left it up to Philipp Grubauer, who appeared just once for the Caps in the regular season (a wion against Anaheim in February), to fill in and perhaps save the Caps’ season. 

Unfortunately, New York picked up where they left off in Game 1 at the start of Game 2.  Cal Clutterbuck scored when he called his own number on a two-on-one rush five minutes into the game.  Ryan Strome doubled the Islanders’ lead three minutes into the second period when he ripped a one-timer from the high slot off a pass from John Tavares past Grubauer.

Two goals on ten shots by the Isles, and the Caps were in trouble.  Then, the ice tilted.  The Caps outshot the Islanders, 7-2, in almost eight minutes after the Strome goal, then scored when Mike Green fed Karl Alzner at the far edge of the right wing circle for a one-timer that beat Jaroslav Halak on his glove side.  The Islanders restored their two-goal lead three minutes later on a Kyle Okposo goal, but it did not blunt the Caps’ momentum.  Alex Ovechkin scored his first of the postseason two minutes after Okposo, and the Isles took a 3-2 lead to the third period.

Then the Caps won the game within a game.  Tom Wilson, who would figure large in this series in edgy ways, drew a slashing penalty from Strome 2:50 into the third period.  It resulted in the Caps’ only power play of the contest.  With 54 seconds gone in the man advantage, Nicklas Backstrom took advantage of uncertain defense to tie the game.  Taking a pass from John Carlson at the red line and skated down the middle toward the Islander zone.  Four defenders surrounded Backstrom and backed off him in a box formation expecting a pass.  Backstrom just kept going, and when he reached the hashmarks he snapped a shot past Halak.

Less than four minutes later, the Caps had the lead.  Nick Leddy made a huge mistake, taking the puck beneath his own goal line and trying to force a pass up the middle.  It was intercepted by Matt Niskanen just inside the blue line.  He backhanded the puck to Jason Chimera, who fired it from the right wing circle toward the Islander net.  Halak made the save but the rebound was nudged by Jay Beagle back to Chimera.  He did not fail a second time.  His shot beat Halak past his blocker on the long side.

That left it up to the young goaltender, Grubauer.  He was aided by a Caps defense that allowed only five shots on goal in the last 12:23 following the Chimera goal, and Grubauer stopped them all.  The Caps salvaged a split in their first two games of the series at home and headed to Long Island.

The object here for the Caps was to obtain at least a split at Nassau Coliseum.  It would take a smart, controlled road game approach to accomplish that, and they applied just that approach to the start of Game 3.  The teams were scoreless for the first 32 minutes, but it would be the Caps who would blink first.  Finding it difficult to clear the puck out of their own end, the Caps were relying on Braden Holtby, back from his bout with illness, to keep the Isles at bay.  Finally, the Islanders broke through on a Lubomir Visnovsky drive that was redirected by Kyle Okposo for the game’s first goal.

At the other end, the Caps were having no success, having directed only 13 shots on Jaroslav Halak over the first two periods.  The Caps dialed up the pressure in the third period, and they were rewarded when Nicklas Backstrom took a pass from Mike Green along the right wing wall, curled out above the faceoff circles, found a shooting angle he liked, and snapped a shot that deflected off the crossbar and in to tie the game with 6:06 left in regulation.

That would be how the teams would go to overtime, but the extra session was over in the blink of an eye.  The Islanders won the opening faceoff of overtime and sent the puck into the Caps’ end.  Holtby gloved the dump-in down and left the puck for John Carlson in the corner to his right.  Carlson sent the puck up the wall, but without much pace, and it was intercepted by Nick Leddy at the blue line.  His drive was redirected by Nikolai Kulemin, but Holtby stopped it.  He did not control the rebound, though, and it ended up on the stick of John Tavares, who put it back to end the overtime at the 15 second mark in a 2-1 Islander win.

The Caps found themselves in the position of facing a two-game deficit when Game 4 began.  They did, however, break on top in the first period when a harmless looking John Carlson shot from the blue line was redirected by Alex Ovechkin as he was skating between the hashmarks in front of Halak.  The Isles tied the game with just 12.6 seconds left in the period when Casey Cizikas jumped on a rebound of a bouncing Cal Clutterbuck shot that handcuffed Braden Holtby.

And that was it for the scoring in regulation.  Holtby stopped 21 shots over the last 40 minutes; Halak turned away 13.  In overtime, though the Caps dominated play.  It would be Backstrom taking things into his own hands to end it.  After winning a faceoff to Halak’s left, the puck came back to him in the corner.  Waiting for John Tavares to commit on defense, Backstrom stepped aside and up the right wing wall, whereupon Tavares lost his stick.  Backstrom continued turning around the top of the faceoff circle and slung a long-distance shot that flew through a maze of players and past Halak to tie the series.

Game 5 in Washington meant that the Islanders would have to play shorthanded.  In the second period of Game 4, Tom Wilson took two penalties.  The first, a kneeing call when he encountered Josh Bailey, pased without undue turmoil.  The second, taken just 22 seconds after he returned to the ice, was much more consequential. 


Wilson was sent back to the box with a charging penalty, but Visnovsky left the ice, not to return to this or any other game in the series, having suffered a concussion.  The Islanders dressed Griffin Reinhart in Visnovsky’s place for Game 5, and while he had a fairly good game, at least at the start, his teammates did not.  After taking the early lead on a Josh Bailey goal less than six minutes into the game, they were steamrolled by the support troops for the Caps.  Evgeny Kuznetsov tied the game when he won a faceoff in the Islander end, then circled around to the far side of the net just in time to swat a loose puck out of mid-air and past Halak.

The Caps took the lead mid-way in the second on some persistent play from Troy Brouwer.  Calvin deHaan sent a weak pass up the middle from below his own faceoff circle that Jay Beagle deadened.  The puck rolled off Beagle’s stick, but Brouwer was there to collect it and get a shot off.  Halak trapped the puck, but not securely, and Brouwer poked it loose.  Carrying it around the back of the Islander net, he found Karl Alzner pinching down through the left wing circle.  Alzner’s one-timer beat Halak, and the Caps never looked back.  Brooks Laich scored less than three minutes into the third period, Kuznetsov scored his second of the game less than four minutes later, and Jason Chimera capped the scoring at the 9:00 mark for the final margin in the Caps’ 5-1 win.

As happens so often with the Caps, though, once they push a team to the edge of the cliff, they can’t manage to shove them off.  Back on Long Island, the Islanders and Caps exchanged goals in the first period – John Tavares for the Isles and John Carlson for the Caps, the latter scoring with just 4.3 seconds left in the period.  The second period passed without a red light going on, but the Islanders would ensure the series would go to one last game when Nikolai Kulemin scored mid-way through the period, and Cal Clutterbuck added an empty net goal with 52.6 seconds left to clinch Game 6, 3-1.

Game 7 in Washington.  We’ve been here before.  Seven of nine postseason series played to this point in the Rock the Red era went to a seventh game for the Caps.  The Caps were 2-5 in those series, 1-4 in Games 7 played at home.  The eighth Game 7 in their past ten playoff series started in tense fashion.  Neither team could score in the first period, although the Caps held an 11-3 edge in shots.  The Caps maintained the pressure in the second period, outshooting the Islanders, 18-6, over the first 18 minutes.  It looked as if the Caps were squandering yet another opportunity to close out a team in Game 7 on home ice.

Then, the “heavy” style of hockey the Caps adopted this season bore fruit.  With less than two minutes left in the period, Nicklas Backstrom slid the puck down the wall behind the Islander net.  Joel Ward locked up with Nick Leddy in a battle for the puck.  Ward won that battle and moved the puck to Alex Ovechkin in the corner.  Ovechkin sent the puck out to Brooks Orpik at the left point, during which Ward made his way to the front of the net.  Orpik fired a shot from the point that Halak stopped, but Ward had position on Leddy and Johnny Boychuk and stuffed the puck under Halak’s pads and in to give the Caps the lead.

The Islanders tied the game in the third period when Frans Nielsen fired a shot that Braden Holtby misplayed through his pads.  It looked as if the teams might have to settle this in overtime, but Evgeny Kuznetsov put an end to that thinking.  Jason Chimera fought off Boychuk in the corner to Halak’s left to move the puck up to Kuznetsov along the wall. Kuznetsov cut to the middle, slipped between three defenders, held the puck as Halak committee to the ice, then wristed the puck into the open net 12:42 into the period to give the Caps a 2-1 lead. 

The Caps clamped down from there, allowing just one Islander shot over the next 4:24.  But with 2:54 left in regulation, there was still some suspense to be dealt with.  John Carlson took a roughing penalty to put the Islanders a man up.  The Caps shut down the Islander power play, allowing only one shot attempt – a miss by Bailey – in the two minute advantage.  It was the last gasp for the Isles as the Caps closed the door on the game and the series, 2-1, to move on to the second round.

Caps…Rangers.  Again.  For the fifth time in seven years, the two teams met in the postseason.  The teams split their previous four meetings, the Caps winning in 2009 and 2011, the Rangers coming out on top in 2012 and 2013.  Game 1 was what this extended series was all about.  Coming into this game the teams had played 26 games in four series, and 18 of them ended in one goal decisions.  This contest would make it 19 in 27 games.  The Caps got started late in the first period in simple fashion.  On a power play, John Carlson skated out from behind his net and fed a long pass to Alex Ovechkin skating down the left wing in the neutral zone.  Ovechkin carried the puck into the Ranger end, backing off Brian Boyle.  At the top of the left wing circle Ovechkin snapped a shot that sailed over goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s glove and into the top corner of the net. 

Washington held that 1-0 lead for almost 40 minutes, but it was not long enough.  Jesper Fast tied the game with 4:39 left in regulation by being there.  A shot by Kevin Hayes from the blue line struck a Capital on its way through, then hit Fast’s leg, redirecting the puck just enough to elude goalie Braden Holtby to tie the game.

Overtime looked like a certainty in the last minute, but the Caps had one more push left.  Alex Ovechkin carried the puck into the Rangers’ zone but lost control of the puck and his balance.  Brian Boyle chased the puck into the corner for the Rangers, but Nicklas Backstrom separated him from the biscuit long enough for Ovechkin to get back into the play.  Ovechkin took the puck around the end wall, and as he was curling behind the Ranger net he threw a pass back and around Derek Stepan from the direction he came where Joel Ward was filling in.  Ward snapped a shot from the top of the crease that slid under Lundqvist’s left pad, and the Caps took the lead and Game 1 with 1.3 seconds left.

The Caps met a different Ranger team in Game 2, one that would get out to a quick lead.  Chris Kreider put the Rangers on top just 38 seconds into the contest.  Dan Boyle added to the Ranger lead on a power play late in the period to put the Rangers up, 2-0, heading to the first intermission.  It proved to be a bit much for the Caps to match.  Evgeny Kuznetsov got the Caps within a goal late in the second period by chasing his own dump-in and putting back a rebound of a shot by Jason Chimera.  Unfortunately, the Caps could not get the tying goal before the Rangers restored their two-goal lead, that coming when Derick Brassard got behind the Caps’ defense and scored six minutes into the third period.  Ovechkin scored four minutes later on a highlight goal, splitting two Ranger defenders and wristing the puck past Lundqvist as he was falling to the ice, but it was as close as the Caps could get in dropping Game 2 to the Rangers, 3-2.

Caps-Rangers series have been marked by a scarcity of goals, and Game 3 in Washington was no exception.  Neither team could put a mark on the score sheet in the first period, and they went another seven minutes into the second period before a red light was lit.  It was a frustrating moment followed by a surprising one.  Evgeny Kuznetsov lifted the puck into the Ranger zone from the red line to start a line change.  Troy Brouwer stayed on and put pressure on Martin St. Louis trying to reach the puck.  With those two locked up, the puck slid to Dan Girardi, who was pressured by Andre Burakovsky in the corner to Lundqvist’s right.  Burakovsky backhanded the puck to the middle, right on the tape of Jay Beagle skating down the middle.  Beagle had a wide-open opportunity for a one-timer, but Lundqvist got enough of the puck going by to steer it into the end wall.  Beagle followed up his own shot and got control of the puck behind the Ranger net.  From below the Ranger goal line he backhanded the puck in an effort to find Burakovsky closing on the net.  However, the puck struck the skate of defenseman Keith Yandle, hit Lundqvist’s pad, and caromed into the net to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.  That was all that Braden Holtby would need.  He faced 30 Ranger shots and turned all of them aside to earn his second career postseason shutout.

The teams played things close in the first three games, all of them ending in one-goal decisions.  Game 4 would prove to be no exception to the pattern.  In fact, Game 4 followed the script of Game e rather closely – no scoring in the first period followed by an extended scoreless stretch to start the second period.  Unlike Game 3, however, it was the Rangers that broke through first.  Martin St. Louis’ pass from the left wing to Derick Brassard darting down the middle was right on the tape of Brassard’s stick, and he had just enough of a lead on Alex Ovechkin bearing down from behind to lift the puck over the left arm of Holtby to make it 1-0 at the 6:12 mark.

Just over ten minutes later, the Caps tied it.  Andre Burakovsky, who recorded his first NHL postseason point in Game 3 with an assist, stole the puck from Chris Kreider along the right wing wall, curled to the middle, held the puck, then snapped it past Lundqvist’s blocker. 

It took less than half a minute of the third period to break the tie.  Ranger defenseman Ryan McDonagh had trouble controlling the puck at the red line in front of the penalty boxes.  It was kicked ahead by Troy Brouwer to Burakovsky behind the defense.  Burakovsky curled in and with McDonagh trying to annoy him off the puck, he shielded himself from the defender and unleashed a backhand the beat Lunsqvist on the far side to give the Caps a 2-1 lead 24 seconds into the period.  It was Braden Holtby’s game after that, and he stopped all nine Ranger shots he face in the third period to record the win and send the teams back to New York with the Caps in a position to clinch.

And that is just what the Caps were poised to do, nursing a goal by Curtis Glencross 11 minutes into the third period into the last two minutes of Game 5.  But Chris Kreider one-timed a pass from Derek Stepan from the left wing circle past Holtby to tie the game with just 1:41 left.  It was a place the Caps found themselves all too often over the course of their history, unable to close a team out in Game 5, and they paid for it mid-way through overtime.  From just outside his own blue line, Glencross tried a diagonal pass up ice to Brooks Laich.  The pass was knocked down by Jesper Fast, who turned and headed down the right wing into the Caps’ end.  As this was going on, Laich went to the bench, and that exchange might have created a fatal opening.  Fast sent the puck across to Stepan, who left it for McDonagh entering the zone, into a gap where either Laich or his replacement might have filled in.  Instead, there was nothing but open space, and McDonagh stepped up and fired a shot past Holtby to send the teams back to Washington for Game 6.

With a chance to close out the Rangers at home, the Caps laid an egg.  Kreider scored goals in the first and last minute of the first period, the second with two-tenths of a second left when a shot of a faceoff win was stopped by Holtby, but John Carlson kicked the puck back and between Holtby’s pads, leaving Kreider with a tap in. 

Jason Chimera got a tap-in of his own 28 seconds into the second period when Henrik Lundqvist did not handle Joel Ward’s shot from the top of the right wing circle cleanly.  The Caps could not get the tying goal in the second period, and the Rangers pulled away in the third.  Goals by Rick Nash and Dan Boyle less than five minutes in gave the Rangers a 4-1 lead.  Evgeny Kuznetsov made things more interesting in the eighth minute when Ward poked the puck off the stick off the stick of Stepan, and Kuznetsov rifled the loose puck off the post past Lundqvist on the short side. 

Ward got one of his own less than three minutes later when his persistence was rewarded in front of the Ranger net.  Jason Chimera fired the puck at the net from the left wing wall, and when Lundqvist made the save, Ward was there to poke it past Lundqvist’s left pad to get the Caps within a goal.  That would be as close as the Caps would get, though, and the Rangers skated off winners, 4-2, to send the series back to New York for Game 7.

For the fourth time in five series in seven years, the Caps and Rangers went to a seventh game.  In the previous three Games 7, the Rangers scored first.  Not so in this one.  As the first period was reaching he 13-minute mark, Nicklas Backstrom won a faceoff in the Ranger end to the right of Lundqvist.  The puck came back to Ovechkin, who managed to poke free to Backstrom, who sent it down the wall to Marcus Johansson.  From the far edge of the faceoff circle, Johansson found Ovechkin cutting down the middle, and Ovechkin snapped the puck over Lundqvist’s glove to make it 1-0.

In the seventh minute of the second period, Kevin Hayes tied the game on a power play when he took a feed from J.T. Miller on the back side and slid the puck behind Holtby.  And that would be it.  For the second time in three games and second straight time in Madison Square Garden, the teams would go to an overtime tied, 1-1.

In the end, it ended quickly, but in slow motion.  The Rangers won a faceoff to the left of Holtby.  The puck slid back to Keith Yandle, who fed Dan Girardi for a one-timer.  Holtby kicked out the drive, but the rebound went straight to Derek Stepan, who wasted no time spiking the puck past Holtby, on his back in the paint.  Cue the handshakes.

***** 

For the fourth time in the Rock the Red era, the Caps made it to the second round, but no further. This one, however, felt different from the others.  There was a lot to build on, even in another second round loss.  For starters, there was Braden Holtby.  He was excellent in his first playoff appearance, that against the Boston Bruins in 2012, but he cemented his position as a goalie who could reasonably anchor a Cup winning team with his performance in this postseason.  Among goalies appearing in five or more games in the 2015 postseason, he had the best goals against average (1.71) and best save percentage (.944).   He is the only goalie since the 2004-2005 lockout having appeared in at least 25 postseason games with a career goals against average under 2.00 and a save percentage above .930.

Alex Ovechkin, for the fourth time in five postseasons, recorded five goals, but he had an interesting supporting cast.  Evgeny Kuznetsov, appearing in his second postseason, tied Ovechkin in goals with five.  John Carlson became only the third Capital defenseman in the Rock the Red era to finish with more than five points for a postseason (1-5-6), joining Mike Green (three times) and Tom Poti.

The Caps were within two minutes of clinching their second round series in Game 5 and an overtime away from it in Game 7 against the Rangers.  While there might be truth in that there are only so many bites at the apple a team might get in advancing to a Stanley Cup, the 2015 team looked to be closer to realizing that goal than perhaps any team in the Rock the Red era.  For the first time, perhaps ever in this era and certainly since 2010, one had the sense they were closer than they ever were to getting it right in the postseason.

Photo: Jared Silber/NHLI via Getty Images