Thursday, May 09, 2013

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 5: Rangers at Capitals

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The last home game of the year.

The playoffs are like that.  In the space of less than 48 hours, fans could go from thinking “we could close this out on Friday” to “this could be the last home game of the year.”  All turning on one game’s outcome, that being the 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 4 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series.

So now, it’s on to Game 5, and if you adhere to the notion that “it’s not a series until a team loses loses a home game,” this isn’t yet a series, despite the fact that the teams have combined for 253 shots on goal, 19 goals, 29 power plays, 35 penalties, and 70 penalty minutes.

What did we learn in Game 4 or the games that preceded it that might have relevance to Game 5? 

-- The Caps lead the series in 5-on-5 play (1.14 goals scored to every one allowed), power play (16.7 to 11.8 percent), penalty killing (88.2 percent – third best mark in the playoffs – to 83.3 percent), shots on goal (129 – 124).  In that sense, they shouldn’t be tied.  So why are they?

-- Third periods, to point to one reason.  In two wins, the Caps have held the Rangers scoreless in the third period, while they have lost the third period in both losses by the same 2-1 margin after being tied after 40 minutes.

-- It is not as if the Rangers did it in the third period with a barrage of shots. In the last two games they had eight in the third period of each, but a .750 save percentage has done goalie Braden Holtby and the Caps in.

-- As the top line goes, so go the Caps, but perhaps not as much as you might think.  In Games 1 and 2, the top line of Alex Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson was a combined 2-1-3, plus-1.  Both games were Caps wins.  In Games 3 and 4, this trio was a combined 1-0-1, minus-5.  It is not much of a difference, and it reflects a general lack of dominance; they account for only three of the Caps’ 10 goals in this series so far.

-- If the first line has been underwhelming, the second line has been unnoticeable on offense.  Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer, Martin Erat, and Eric Fehr (who replaced Erat when the latter was injured in Game 4) have combined for one goal (Brouwer) and one assist (Ribeiro).  That they are a combined plus-5 suggests the lines against which they are playing have contributed just as little offense (less, in fact), but this is the gaping hole in the Caps offense.

-- The Caps are not getting shots from forwards.  As you would expect, Alex Ovechkin leads the team in shots on goal in the series (15), but 12 of them came in the Caps’ wins in Games 1 and 2.  He has a total of three shots on goal over the last 120 minutes of hockey.  After that, it gets worse.  Mike Green (12), John Carlson (12), and Karl Alzner (11)…that’s right, Karl Alzner (who had only 39 shots on goal in 48 games in the regular season)… defensemen all, are next in line in shots on goal.

-- There is a disconnect between the Caps advantage at 5-on-5 (1.14 goals scored per goal allowed) and what the top line is doing.  Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson have the fifth, fourth, and worst “worst” PDO values at 5-on-5.  And, it is a function of low shooting percentages.  Those three are in the bottom seven in on-ice shooting percentage/on ice at 5-on-5 (numbers from  If those numbers normalize, the Rangers are in a world of hurt.

-- The Caps have had the benefit of a lot of (or at least a large share of) offensive zone starts.  Thirteen of 18 skaters have plus-50 percent values at 5-on-5.  Not that they are doing a lot with it, especially that top line.  Eleven of the 18 skaters have offensive zone finishes in sub-50 percent territory, the first line being seventh, twelfth, and fourteenth. 

-- Part of that problem is offensive zone faceoff success.  The top line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Johansson are all below 50 percent in offensive zone faceoffs wins to losses (  Not that they are alone.  The Caps are getting creamed in offensive zone draws.  Overall they are 33-for-82 through four games (40.2 percent).  Little things are magnified at this time of year, especially when the margins for error are as thin as they have been in this series (the game-winning goal scored in the third period or overtime in three of the four games).

-- Martin Erat is going to be missed, just not in obvious ways.  Sure, he has not lit up the scoreboard, but despite having the toughest offensive zone start numbers on the team (36.4 percent), he was not on ice for any goal scored against in the first four games.  Whoever replaces him not likely to duplicate that performance (even if you consider it one of those small populations of instances).  Eric Fehr seems likely to get at least the first shot at taking his spot on the second line, and he might provide more offense than did Erat, who did not have a point in three-plus games of this series.

-- The penalties called against Washington in New York were often of the head-scratching variety, but even with all that nonsense, the Caps killed off eight of the ten shorthanded situations they faced in Games 3 and 4.  It was more the effect on rhythm at 5-on-5 – getting scoring lines even and regular timing on their shifts – that might have been the problem.

-- In the “glass half full/glass half empty” file, one might say that the Caps wasted two un-Lundqvistian efforts from Henrik Lundqvist in the two games in New York (a .902 save percentage combined over the two games), and that he will surely return to being a brick wall, this being the Caps he is facing.  On the other hand, he hasn’t had all that great a series, save for Game 2, in which he stopped 37 of 38 shots (and lost).  Think about this over your morning coffee…in his last 19 playoff games against the Caps (dating back to Game 5 of the 2009 Eastern quarters) Lundqvist is 7-12, 2.35, .910.  Good, not great.  He has it in him to be “great,” but that is not what his recent playoff performance against the Caps – many of whom have participated in each of those 19 games – says.

In the end, one gets the feeling that the Caps have played better for longer stretches of time than the Rangers, especially at 5-on-5.  What the Caps have done is failed in moments.  The defensive breakdowns in deep that allowed the Rangers to score four goals from within 15 feet in Game 3, the Braden Holtby pass to nowhere in Game 4, the Steve Oleksy getting caught above the circles in Game 4 that led to the 2-on-1 down low that Jack Hillen could not break up, nor Holtby save.

It has been a case of the Caps doing at least as much to beat themselves as the Rangers have done beating the Caps.  This is not prelude to one of those, “well, the Caps played better” eulogies should they lose this series.  It merely serves to point out that the key to winning what is now a best-of-three series is a simple, if crude, piece of advice…

Stop sucking, or else it very well might be the Caps' last home game of the year.

Capitals 4 – Rangers 2

NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals -- Game 4: Rangers 4 - Capitals 3

“Just when you think you got momentum, you lose it.”

Pierre McGuire uttered those words when Mathieu Perreault scored the Washington Capitals’ first goal last night, but it might have described the series, and not in a good way for the Caps.  The momentum the Capitals might have had in winning Games 1 and 2 was lost last night as the New York Rangers tied their series at two games apiece with a 4-3 win at Madison Square Garden. 

The Caps were chasing the Rangers all night, it seemed, allowing the game’s first two goals.  The first one was the result of a ghastly miscue by Braden Holtby, who drifted out to the faceoff circle to his left to play a loose puck late in the first period.  He tried to wire a pass through the middle to Eric Fehr at the red line along the wall on the right side.  Taylor Pyatt got in the way to knock the puck down, then all hell broke loose. Holtby tried to scramble back to his crease as Carl Hagelin scooped up the puck and fired at the Caps’ net.  John Carlson blocked the shot with a skate, but it caromed out to Brad Richards as Holtby was sliding across his crease.  By the time Richards fired, Holtby slid all the way through, and Richards had nothing be empty net to shoot at.  He did not miss, and the Rangers had the lead.

New York would double their lead mid-way through the second period when Carl Hagelin got a goal of his own, firing a shot from the left wing faceoff circle high over Holtby’s glove on the far side.   The Rangers would lose that two-goal lead before the second period was through.  Mathieu Perreault got the Caps on the board when he finished some of Joel Ward’s hard work.  Ward took a feed from Jason Chimera in the neutral zone and skated down the left wing.  He skated defenseman Michael De Zotto to his knees, then circled around him to the Ranger net.  His shot was paddled aside by goalie henrik Lundqvist, but the puck ended up on the stick of Perreault at the left post.  Perreault knocked it in, and the Caps were within a goal.

Troy Brouwer tied the game with 17.1 seconds left in the second period.  It started with some good forechecking pressure from Mike Ribeiro denying the Rangers the chance to clear the puck from their zone.  Mike Green kept the puck in at the right point and fed it to Brouwer at the top of the right wing circle.  Brouwer cut to the middle, split Anton Stralman and Derek Stepan, and backhanded the puck past Lundqvist’s blocker to knot the score at two apiece going into the second intermission.

The Rangers restored their two goal lead early in the third period.  The first came on a power play, Dan Girardi taking a nice backhand feed from Derick Brassard and firing a slap shot past Holtby’s blocker when it appeared Brouwer backed into Holtby’s line of sight to screen his own goaltender.

Stepan made it 4-2 six minutes into the period, finishing some nifty passing in deep.  Ryan Callahan picked up a loose puck at the top of the right wing circle and took advantage of numbers to feed Stepan to Holty’s right.  Stepan fed Hagelin at the other side ot the low slot, then Hagelin fed it back.  Holtby had no chance to prevent Stepan from burying the puck in the back of the net for a new two-goal lead.

Less than 90 seconds later, Perreault got the Caps back within one when he proved that getting in the way can have its charms.  Karl Alzner kept the puck in the Ranger zone at the left point, then let loose a wrist shot toward the Ranger net.  As the puck was making its way toward the net, Perreault was cutting across the middle.  The puck struck him, hit a post, and settled behind Lundqvist to make it 4-3 at 7:31 of the period.

That would be as close as the Caps would get, though.  The Caps would get nine more shots on goal in the last 12:29, but Lundqvist stopped them all, and the series was tied, the momentum the Caps had coming to New York now in the Rangers’ hands as the Caps were leaving town.

Other stuff…

-- How does John Moore not get a penalty for cross-checking Jason Chimera to the ice after Perreault’s goal?

-- The Caps are showing Henrik Lundqvist to be mortal, but they are not taking advantage of that good fortune because their own defense is getting broken down by the Rangers in deep.  New York is getting too many chances – such as that which led to the game-winning goal – in close.

-- The Caps have lost two straight third periods by a 2-1 score and lost the games as a result.  This has been one of those under-the-radar issues for the Caps this season.  They are now 4-6-1 (regular season plus playoffs) when tied after 40 minutes of play (1-2 in this series).

-- Wouldn’t you know it.  The Caps get secondary scoring, and the top line can’t get a point… ok, one in the last two games.  Joel Ward has three assists over the last two games. Mathieu Perreault is 2-1-3 (the two goals being scored last night).  Jason Chimera has a pair of assists.  Jay Beagle has as many goals (one) as the top line has scored in the last two games (one – Nicklas Backstrom  in Game 3).  John Erskine has more assists (one) than does the top line over the last two games. 

-- The top line of Backstrom, Alex Ovechkin, and Marcus Johansson was held to four shots on goal and no points last night.  Alex Ovechkin did not have an even-strength shot on goal, only one on a power play.

-- The second line was almost as unproductive.  Troy Brouwer did have a goal, but it was the only point on the Brouwer-Mike Ribeiro-Martin Erat line, and they had only two shots on goal (four, if you include the two that Eric Fehr had when he moved to this line).  Six (even eight) shots on goal from the scoring lines is not especially conducive to scoring.  By way of comparison, the defense recorded 11 shots on goal.

-- The second line problems were in part a product of an injury sustained by Martin Erat late in the first period, who looked as if he injured his left arm when he got tangled up with Derek Stepan and fell to the ice.

-- The Rangers were up to old tricks last night.  They blocked more shots (33) than the Caps recorded on goal (30).  The defense had almost as many blocked shots (19) as did the entire Caps team (20).

-- It was an ugly night in the faceoff circle for the Capitals.  They were 19-for-53 overall (35.8 percent) and just 5-for-18 (27.8 percent) in the offensive zone.

-- The Perreault-Ward-Chimera line (assembled when Erat went out, Eric Fehr moved to the second line, and Ward took Fehr’s place) was the most active one last night – 11 shots on goal, 2-3-5 overall with each player finishing plus-1.

In the end, this has become a frustrating series.  The Caps are doing a lot of little things wrong (faceoffs, for example) and some big things wrong (a wandering goalie, the power play going dark, defensive breakdowns), and still lost these last two games by a single goal when they lost the third periods of both games.  You get the feeling that if the Caps can stop beating themselves, this Rangers team cannot compete with them.  But the Caps have been beating themselves, and the Rangers have been able to compete. 

Now, it becomes a three-game series, and the Caps are really, really bad at three game series.  In 2009 they had a three-game series when Pittsburgh tied their playoff series at two games apiece. The Caps lost, 2-1.  The Caps beat the Boston Bruins in a three-game series in the first round of the playoffs last season, 2-1, but then lost to these same Rangers in the second round, 2-1.  Going back in time… 2003, the Caps lost to the Tampa Bay Lightning, 2-0, after being tied 2-2 after four games.  2001, a 2-0 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins.  1996, a 2-0 loss to the Penguins. 

There is a long, sad history here.  What it means is that the Caps need to start playing like they have a chip on their shoulder, and not the weight of that history on their backs.