Friday, April 04, 2008

The first round of the playoffs

For the Capitals, the first round of the playoffs doesn’t start next week, it ends tomorrow night.

Since the trading deadline, the Caps have faced, if not an insurmountable climb, then certainly an uphill one just to make the “final eight” in the East. Theirs has been – to employ an NCAA basketball tournament analogy – an 18 game “play-in” round that started at the trading deadline. And that round ends tomorrow with the Caps taking a 13-4-0 record into what amounts to an elimination game.

While some (certainly not Matt Cooke, who saw what Edmonton did a couple of years ago) might argue that such a long slog wears on a team and renders it spent for the Stanley Cup tournament, it is just as plausible that the white-hot crucible in which they’ve played has readied the Caps for the sort of tense, hard-fought, don’t-take-a-shift-off sort of grind that marks the two months of Stanley Cup play.

What sort of team do the Caps take into the elimination game and, hopefully, the next round? Well, the first order of business is to dispel a widely-held (even among many Caps fans) myth.

Myth: The Capitals are a weak defensive team.

Truth: The Capitals have allowed a total of 33 goals in the last 17 games – 1.94 goals per game. They have been especially strong at even strength, allowing only 17 non-empty net, even strength goals – one a game. Four of those came in a single game – the 5-0 shutout in Chicago on March 19th. Whether the stinginess is a product of Cristobal Huet’s arrival; the light going on over the head of some young defensemen like Jeff Schultz, Shaone Morrisonn, or Milan Jurcina; a product of the next progression in team development (now that they seem to have mastered Bruce Boudreau’s offensive system); or just plain luck, the fact is that this is a very good defensive team.

Here is another way to look at it…the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils are the top defensive teams in the East (2.31 and 2.35 goals per game for the season, respectively). The Rangers have allowed 32 goals in 16 games since the trading deadline (2.00/game), the Devils 41 in 16 (2.56).

Here are some other things to ponder…

Consistency...There is what is embedded in that 13-4-0 record…in 51 regulation periods of hockey, the Caps have “won” 21 periods and “tied” 21 others. They have lost only nine periods of hockey in 17 games. They haven’t lost a period of hockey since the first period of their 3-2 shootout win in Carolina on March 25th. That’s 14 consecutive periods of hockey without a loss.

A rising tide lifts all boats…That Alex Ovechkin has raised his game as the season reaches its climax is not exactly news. But it’s had a curious effect on the rest of the club…they’ve come along for the ride. Consider the following table…

Yes, Ovechkin has ramped up his goal scoring – a quarter of a goal a game since the trading deadline. Well, so has the rest of the team. They are keeping pace by adding another quarter of a goal a game to account for the rest of the Caps’ 0.50 goal a game improvement on offense. Ovechkin might be the star, but he’s not a solo act.

The Caps do not come about their 13-4-0 record by way of fluke or by virtue of a mere “hot streak.” They have been consistently good over the last 60 games – 36-17-7 (a 108-point pace). They have improved on that in the 17 games…for the Capitals, what has amounted to the first round of the playoffs. And they’ve done it with solid, consistent, often dominating hockey.

A TWO-point night!...Caps 4 - Lightning 1

…and one to go.

In a game that was several separate and distinct games, the Caps ground out a 60-minute, 4-1 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning that started oddly, took a boring turn, had some nervous moments for the home crowd – on the ice and on the scoreboard, paid homage to the virtues of persistence, and then got stupid, courtesy of a gutless coach whose tough guy act has gotten stale.

In the first act of this production, the Caps looked to run the Lightning right out of the building, after the Lightning popped the home team in the nose with a goal at 39 seconds. Filip Kuba swatted in a loose puck that Cristobal Huet could not find at the top of his crease, and the lively crowd settled into a hushed, nervous silence.

The Caps then proceeded to outshoot the Lightning, 17-2, over the next 11:22, culminating in a goal by Alex Ovechkin – his 64th of the season – that gave him the all time single season goal scoring record for left wingers (Luc Robitaille previously holding the record at 63). The goal was not a signature wrist shot, it wasn’t a deke and a roofed backhand, it wasn’t a one-timer…it was a crash-the-net, poke-at-it, two-cushion bank shot off both Kuba and Alexandre Picard, and behind goalie Karri Ramo. Years from now, it will be described as an end-to-end rush.

That goal might have taken the starch out of the Lightning. It had a different effect – the Caps seeming to go into a shell after the tying marker. For the next 35:49 from the tying goal and well into the third period, the teams split a total of 26 shots evenly, none of them finding the back of the net. The excitement – and not the sort Caps fans wanted to comtemplate – came when Ovechkin dipped to one knee to block a shot. He took the drive off the outside of his right knee and skated off. After testing his leg during a stoppage in play, he turned down the tunnel and was not on the bench for the last minute of the period. It wasn’t a good sign.

However, Ovechkin came out for the third, and as it turned out, would not suffer the most noteworthy injury. 6:45 into the period, as Vincent Lecavalier was skating up ice abreast and inside of Michel Ouellet in front of the Lightning bench, he was hit firmly by Matt Cooke. Lecavalier was rocked backwards and into Ouellet, upon which Lecavalier fell to the ice awkwardly. He was down for several minutes, not moving from the fetal position in which he found himself. He was eventually helped to his skates by the trainer and teammates, skating off with assistance and unable to straighten up. It appeared to be an injury to his right shoulder.

Less than a minute later, Jussi Jokinen tried to answer the question, how many times can I cross-check their star until I get called for it? After several attempts at abusing Ovechkin, he was whistled for a penalty. 24 seconds later, Ovechkin made the Lightning pay, taking a cross-ice feed from Mike Green at the top of the left wing circle and snapping a wrist shot over Ramo’s blocker, leaving the goalie to turn to a teammate and just shrug in resignation…there wasn’t much he could do about it.

Boyd Gordon provided additional insurance with a nice backhand lifted over Ramo with 3:17 left. It was a nice reward for some hard work he did in the corners just before darting to the net to convert a rebound of a shot off the stick of Matt Bradley.

Tom Poti ended the fun with a 140 foot lob down the ice that settled softly into the empty Lightning net with 1:08 to go.

Then things got stupid. John Tortorella, who seems to have tried to adopt the “Tony Montana” school of coaching in the years since he coached the Lightning to a Stanley Cup, announced to the Caps in the final minute, “you wanna #@$& with me? Okay. You wanna play rough? Okay. Say hello to my little friends!”…upon which Doug Janik took a run at Tomas Fleischmann, and Junior Lessard squared off with Matt Bradley (who abused Lessard rather severely). Janik was whistled for roughing and a misconduct, Lessard went off with his fighting major, and Nick Tarnasky and Jason Ward were sent off with misconducts of their own for good measure. 37 minutes in penalties to make a point, with the object of the exercise presumably having been…Tomas Fleischmann? Tortorella said after the game, "It's good stuff as far as after Vinny and the stuff at the end of the game as far as trying to help one another out."

Uh, yeah…whatever. Good luck with that lottery thing.

As far as the numbers go, the noteworthy ones at the top are minutes. Kudos to Steve Eminger for stepping in for injured Shaone Morrisonn and giving a good account of himself in his nine minutes of ice time. It might not have been a lot, but if he’d made a mistake our there – considering the stakes in this game – he’d have been fitted for goat horns right quick. And to Jeff Schultz, who ended up skating more than 23 minutes, playing the “I got your back” role Morrisonn usually plays for Mike Green.

Tom Poti registered a season-high six shots on goal. He finally scored on the last one.

Matt Bradley…two shots, an assist, three hits, a takeaway, a blocked shot, and a fight. He was a busy fella for his 13:43.

Boyd Gordon looked like he was wearing a tinted visor…he wasn’t. It just looked like he had a bruised…uh, face.

Say what you want, but Karri Ramo probably deserved better than to go 0-2-1 against the Caps this year. He had a superb game tonight, keeping the Lightning in it with top-notch saves on Matt Cooke, Eric Fehr, and Ovechkin, among others, and giving up only a single goal while getting shelled with 20 shots in the first period.

Necessity being the mother of invention, Mike Green was more or less forced to log 2:10 in penalty killing time tonight (the injury to Morrisonn giving birth to the necessity). Why is that noteworthy?...he’s averaging 20 seconds of penalty killing time a game this year.

No Cap had a losing record in the circle tonight (33 wins in 54 total draws – 61.1 percent).

Matt Cooke had six hits tonight. He was a heat-seeking missle on the forecheck tonight, forcing the Lightning into quicker decisions than they might otherwise have liked to take.

Can you tell the stakes are high?...Milan Jurcina digging after a puck sliding down the ice, then diving and sweeping it away from a Tampa player deep in the Caps’ end…Matt Bradley laying out to block a drive…Ovechkin taking one off his knee…

…although there was some comic relief…Cristobal Huet stepping out far from his crease to try to play a puck, falling down not once, but twice on his way to the puck. He thought better of the exercise and returned to the familiar embrace of his crease.

…and Karri Ramo doing something similar, darting out to try to play a puck as it was sliding into the corner…looking up, not finding a trapezoid…and thinking, “this is not good,” letting the puck go by and avoiding the penalty.

Mathieu Darche was an equal-opportunity loser in the faceoff circle. He was 0-for-7, failing to win a draw against four different Caps (Fedorov, Laich, Backstrom, and Gordon). Jeff Halpern wasn’t much better…1-for-8.

Oh, and if yo're wondering, the waving off of the Brooks Laich goal was the right call (sure, you can say that now...the Caps won)...Tomas Fleischmann pushed the defenseman into the goaltender, creating an opportunity for Laich.

The Caps can now finish anywhere from sixth to ninth. If Boston beats Ottawa in regulation tomorrow night and loses to Buffalo in regulation on Saturday, the Flyers do no better than split their remaining two games against New Jersey (tomorrow) and Pittsburgh (Sunday), and the Caps win on Saturday, the Caps finish sixth. We won’t discuss the “ninth-place” scenario…

Put more simply…”win, and you’re in…probably…we hope.”

…and one to go.