Thursday, April 26, 2012

Something's Happening Here?

There's something happening here.  What it is ain't exactly clear…

For the tenth time in franchise history, the Washington Capitals are advancing to the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. Only twice have they escaped the second round. In its own way, the second round has been a special place of misfortune for the Caps. In 1986 they entered the second round as a heavy favorite to oust the New York Rangers, but lost in six games to a team that finished 29 points behind them in the regular season standings.

In 1988 the Caps skated into the second round fresh off a thrilling seven-game series win over the Philadelphia Flyers in which they came back from a three-games-to-one deficit and won the series in overtime on a goal by current head coach Dale Hunter. They found the New Jersey Devils facing them in the second round, and they dispatched the Devils in business-like fashion in Game 1 by a 3-1 margin. But with less than seven minutes left in that game, Pat Verbeek and Rod Langway tangled up behind the Caps net, and Verbeek slice Langway’s left calf open with his skate. The series-ending injury to their top defenseman discombobulated the Capitals, who surrendered 15 goals over the next two games to go down two-games-to-one, a disadvantage they would be clawing uphill against for the rest of the series before losing Game 7 by a 3-2 margin.

In 1991, the Caps won another their opening round series against the Rangers, only to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. It would be the first time the Capitals would face the Penguins in the playoffs, the Penguins coming off a hard-fought seven-game series against the Devils in round one. The Caps gave their fans a reason to hope for better things when they beat the Penguins in Game 1, 4-2, on goals by Kelly Miller and three defensemen – Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, and Calle Johansson. But the Penguins acquainted Caps fans with the concept of hopes crushed, taking Game 2 in a wild 7-6 overtime decision, and then closing out the series in Games 4 and 5 on their way to their first Stanley Cup.

In 1994 the Caps managed to beat the Penguins in a six-game opening round, but they were little more than a speed bump for the Rangers on their march to a championship, beating the Caps in the first three games of the series by a combined score of 14-5 and eventually winning the series four games to one.

After that, the Caps would win second round series in 1998 (on their own march to a Stanley Cup final), but it would be the only second round series they would play until 2009. There, they faced the Penguins again in the first post-season meeting of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. The series lived up to the hype, and then some. Semyon Varlamov stole a goal right off the goal line in 3-2 Game 1 win for the Caps. Ovechkin and Crosby exchanged hat tricks in a 4-3 Game 2 win for Washington that might have been the best mano-a-mano duel in recent playoff history. Pittsburgh won the middle three games, the last one a harbinger of things to come when Capitals defensemen Tom Poti, trying to block a pass from Evgeni Malkin across the Capitals’ crease, deflected the puck into his own net for a 4-3 overtime loss. The Caps returned the favor with a 5-4 overtime win in Pittsburgh in Game 6, but the clock struck midnight – loudly – in Game 7 for the Caps. The Penguins scored two first period goals and then another two minutes into the third period and won going away, 6-2, to take the series.

Last season, Washington knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs for the fourth time in franchise history, which led them to the Tampa Bay Lighting, a team against which they had a 4-1-1 record in the regular season. But the Lightning stunned the Caps with a pair of wins on Washington ice to start the series, and the Caps never recovered, getting swept in a seven-game playoff series for only the third time in franchise history, and the first time they were swept sooner than the conference final.

That is a lot of unfortunate history in the second round. Generally, the losses fall into two types. There are those in which the Caps were a hard-working team of good, but not elite skill that just did not have another gear they could call upon to move further. The 1988, 1991, and 1994 teams would fall under this category. Then there was the team that simply underachieved – the 2011 team. You could make an argument that the Caps of 2009 were of the former category, but this was a team that had the series on its plate with a Game 7 on home ice and gagged on it.

Which brings us to the 2012 team about to enter the second round, and there is something happening here. In some respects they resemble the teams of the first category – ones that have their share of hard working players in a system that stresses responsibility and attention to defense. It is not a risk-taking team, certainly not of the type that Caps fans have become used to in recent years. As such, one wonders if it has the next gear to call upon to move past the next opponent, the gear that those teams in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s did not have.

In other respects this 2012 edition of the Caps looks like the second category of teams from the past – a team that does have high-end talent  -- a team with that extra gear -- but, as evidenced from their seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference in the regular season, one capable of underachieving on large scale.

Something else seems to be going on here, though. This team has a different look to it than any of those in either of the two categories identified.  At least through the first round of this series, the Caps seem to have taken a page from each of the other categories of teams. The Caps held the Boston Bruins to a total of 15 goals in seven games and killed off 21 of 23 shorthanded situations. That they would do so against a team as deep as the battle-tested defending Stanley Cup champions is evidence of a team-wide willingness to put in the effort, to do the little things and do the hard work it takes to grind out wins at this time of year. A lot like those teams of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

But this team is much more skilled than those earlier teams. The core of this roster is still the one that led the Caps to three consecutive 100-point seasons, two consecutive conference titles, and a Presidents Trophy. Alex Ovechkin led all Caps with five points for the series with the Bruins and tied with Boston’s Rich Peverley for the lead among all players. Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich were each 1-3-4 in a close-checking series, and Alexander Semin had three goals. The difference is that when the skill didn’t come out to play, these same players did the things they needed to do to grind out wins.

The mating of elements from teams of years past seems to have created a new compound for the 2012 Capitals – resolve. And they applied both the noun and verb usages of the term in the opening round. They resolved doubts about their ability to compete with a team that would challenged them physically and psychologically. They also expressed a firmness of purpose and a determination – a resolve – to do what they needed to do to score and not be scored upon.

It is this new substance that the Capitals lacked in sufficient quantity in the earlier editions of teams that failed in the second round, and it was almost entirely absent from the teams that failed more recently. But the Caps appear to have found the wellspring of resolve and will have to apply it liberally to the next challenge in the road to a Stanley Cup.

32...It's Not Just a Retired Jersey Number

Mel Hill
Leo Reise
Pete Babando
Tony Leswick
Gerry Melnyk
Kevin O’Shea
Lanny McDonald
Yvon Lambert
Brad Park
Steve Payne
Peter Stastny
Claude Lemieux
Pat LaFontaine
Dale Hunter
Joel Otto
Esa Tikkanen
Russ Courtnall
Nikolai Borschevsky
David Volek
Pavel Bure
Stephane Matteau
Ray Whitney
Steve Yzerman
Derek Plante
Todd Marchant
Pierre Turgeon
Darius Kasparaitis
Andrew Brunette
Martin Gelinas
Joffrey Lupul
Scott Walker

…and Joel Ward, the 32nd player in NHL history to end a playoff series in overtime in Game 7.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 7: Capitals 2 - Bruins 1

The King is dead! Long live the…

Well, there will be time for that. In the meantime, the Washington Capitals eliminated the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with a nerve-wracking, fingernail-chewing, beard-pulling, face-in-the-pillow 2-1 overtime win at TD Garden in Boston.

Joel Ward, who had not recorded a goal in his previous 19 games, and who had only one in his last 41 games – half a regular season’s worth of games – scored at 2:57 of the first overtime to send the Caps to the second round.

It was a freakishly sudden end to a game that had been more than 60 minutes of grinding force. In fact, the whole ending sequence took all of eight seconds. Benoit Pouliot tried to hammer the puck down the right wing boards from just outside the Caps’ blue line, but it was blocked out of the zone where Mike Knuble picked it up.

Knuble wasted no time getting a jump on the stunned Boston defense and found himself on a 2-on-1 rush with Joel Ward with only Greg Zanon back and Pouliot desperately trying to close the ground on Knuble. The Caps right winger fended off Pouliot and managed a backhand attempt on goalie Tim Thomas, who kicked the puck out in the direction from which it came. However, Ward did not skate down the lane to Knuble’s right to the net, but crossed behind Knuble as he was getting his shot off. Ward was in perfect position to swat the rebound past the fallen Thomas, and TD Garden went silent save for the whooping and hollering of 20 white-clad Caps who congratulated Ward.

All in eight seconds.

Other stuff…

-- Mistakes matter in games that have such small margins for error. Boston made one mid-way through the first period, and it cost them. Jason Chimera had the puck along the right-wing wall where he fed if back to John Carlson. As this was going on, Matt Hendricks was in the middle of the offensive zone, circling to find a void in the Boston defense. He did, as neither Milan Lucic nor Johnny Boychuk appeared to pay him much mind. It allowed Hendricks to turn around to face Carlson as the defenseman was winding up for a slap shot. When Carlson sent the puck to the net, Hendricks had an unburdened opportunity to redirect the puck, and he did just that, altering the path of the puck just enough for it to elude Thomas on the stick side and just inside the far post to give the Caps a lead.

-- And the Caps made one of sorts to return the favor. Late in the second period the Caps were looking as if they were doing everything right, keeping the Bruins to the outside and unable to get any traction deep in the Washington end. Andrew Ference was reduced to trying to get the puck to the net from almost the exact spot from which Carlson started the Caps’ first scoring play a period earlier. He did manage to get it there, and even then, the Caps did just about everything right with Carlson and Karl Alzner defending Tyler Seguin. But Alzner could not tie up Seguin’s stick enough, and the Bruin had just enough of a chance to slip the puck the last couple of feet to tie the game.

-- Talk about secondary scoring in spades! Hendricks and Ward get the goals; they had ten between them in the regular season in 151 man games. Chimera and Knuble with helpers; they had 31 between them in 154 man games. In a series when Boston’s depth was the biggest problem facing the Caps’ defense, it would be the Caps’ “depth” on offense that would decide the series’ ultimate game.

-- The more one watches Braden Holtby, the more one is reminded of Olaf Kolzig in this sense. He is, like Kolzig was, nominally a “butterfly” goaltender. But he looks like a linebacker doing it. The movements are aggressive. It sometimes makes for adventures handling the puck, especially when it hits his chest and he starts looking for it. But he is quick enough to cover loose pucks before damage ensues.

-- John Carlson had an assist, and he was on ice when Boston scored their only goal. But for a guy who struggled mightily in the regular season with the defensive side of things, he came up big in this game and this series. He and his partner – Karl Alzner – were on ice for only four of the 15 goals scored by the Bruins in this series despite each getting more than 23 minutes a game.

-- Speaking of four goals against while on ice, that was the total Mike Green finished with for the series, none of them (of course) in this game. And he averaged more than 23 minutes a night, too. Green’s evolution as a capable “defensive” defenseman, if not completed, is certainly within sight of it.

-- How many Caps fans were screaming at their television sets with 2:26 left in the game when Jason Chimera was sent off for holding? Earlier in the day, Alan May was on a local radio show saying that in Games 7 referees will let everything go and then call something late. Well, there you go.

-- The Core Four had a total of six shots on goal for the game and no points, and although Backstrom and Semin were on ice for Seguin’s goal, they could not be faulted for their defense on the play. It was part of a solid act by all four in playing 200 feet instead of the 100 or so their collective reputation would suggest.

-- Give credit to Boston. They brought a champion’s resolve to this one. Sixty-one shot attempts, 36 hits. If they were going down, they were going to do it playing Bruins’ hockey. Which made the Caps’ win sweeter in that they stood up to it. An example – Zdeno Chara, with the hardest shot in the game, had seven shots blocked. Three by John Carlson, two by Dennis Wideman, and one each by Troy Brouwer and Alexander Semin. Not for the faint of heart.

-- Little things… Jay Beagle won six of eight draws in the defensive zone, part of a 12-for-16 night for the Caps in the defensive end. However, it shined a bright light on the fact that Patrice Bergeron had to be hurting. He took only one draw all night (and won it)… Nine Caps had blocked shots; 11 had hits…although they had only 44 shot attempts, they were efficient with them; only five were misses.

In the end, the fact that Joel Ward led the Caps in shot attempts (five) tells you what kind of game this was. Hockey is not war, but war analogies are sometimes apt. This was infantry on both sides going toe to toe in the mud and at close range. No one was yielding an inch of territory, and the slightest advantage appeared for a moment and was soon gone. But in playoff hockey, even the longest, hardest fought battles can end in the blink of an eye. And thus, so did this one.

In eight seconds, as a matter of fact.