There was a discussion last week on local sports talk radio
that centered on the notion of whether “championship or bust” is too high a
standard with which to evaluate a team’s performance over the course of a
season. It is the kind of topic that is
in the sweet spot of fan discussion topics, sure to invite a lot of opinions
and a lot of disagreement.
Thinking about the Washington Capitals in that context in
this most recent era of playoff appearances, the “Rock the Red” era
(2008-present), we are reminded of one of our favorite bits of dialogue from
the rich history of situation comedies.
In the 1970’s show, “Taxi,” Alex Rieger and Reverend Jim Ignatowski had
Jim: I got blueberries!
Alex: Jim, I don't think those are blueberries.
Jim: They look pretty darn blue to me.
Alex: I'm saying that those are blue berries, but they may
not be blueberries. And while all blueberries are blue, not all blue berries
Jim: I've mistaken blueberries for blueberries?
What does this have to do with the Capitals and
playoffs? From a fan’s perspective,
perhaps not all playoff seasons are “playoffs,” at least with respect to the satisfaction
level with outcomes. Some, though they
end early, might be considered a pleasant surprise, while others that might go
longer might be considered disappointments (not that the Caps ever go long into
With that in mind, we are going to take a look back at the
Rock the Red era of playoff performances – all seven of them – by the Caps and
rank them, worst to first, most disappointing to the most pleasant surprise, or
at least the most encouraging from a going-forward point of view.* So, let’s go…
7. 2010: “As Good as
it Gets” to “Bad Beyond Belief"
The 2009-2010 Washington Capitals were ready for prime time
in the postseason.
They reached the
playoffs in each of the previous two seasons, playing in three seven-game
They had one of the most
fearsome offensive squads in the league.
They had, if not the league’s best player, then certainly its second
best, not to mention a youngster growing into one of the best centers in the
league and a defenseman without parallel as an offensive contributor.
The regular season was one of streaks. Consider the Caps’
first 19 games – two wins, four losses, six wins, three losses, four wins. That left Washington with a 12-3-4 record,
best in the Eastern Conference and second best in the league (San Jose:
13-4-3). It only got streakier – and
better – from there. A six-game winning
streak ending November and beginning December, a three-game streak wrapped
around Christmas, another three-game streak just after the first of the new
It was prelude for the mother of all streaks, a 14-game winning
streak starting on January 13th, capped by the “Snowmageddon
” overtime win over
the Pittsburgh Penguins on February 7th.
That streak ended with a 6-5 overtime loss to the Montreal Canadiens, the game
winning goal scored with 7.5 seconds left in overtime in what would be, in
retrospect, a bit of foreshadowing.
would be the first in what would be an irritating trend of losses in the last
While the Caps went 13-3-7
in their last 23 games to finish with the league’s best overall record and
first Presidents Trophy, those seven losses in extra time suggested an
inability to finish teams off.
Nevertheless, no one thought about that in the last ten days
of the season when the Caps went 5-0-1, and few were giving the Canadiens a
chance to upset the Caps in the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. After all, the Caps not only had the best
record in the league (54-15-13), but their big guns were obliterating the
opposition. Alex Ovechkin had not gone
consecutive games without a point over his last 38 games of the season, going
24-35-59, plus-27, over that span (a 127-point, plus-58 pace over 82
games). Nicklas Backstrom’s performance
mirrored that of Ovechkin, not going consecutive games without a point starting
with the same game as Ovechkin’s streak (January 7th against Ottawa, in which
Backstrom had the game-winning goal in a 5-2 win), going 18-37-55, plus-23, in
40 games played (a 113-point, plus-47 pace).
Defenseman Mike Green went the entire season without more than two
consecutive games without a point and did so only three times in the 2010
portion of the season. In 42 games in
the 2010 portion of the season, Alexander Semin went 26-26-52, plus-25,
including two four-point games.
Even when the Canadiens took Game 1 of the opening round in
a 3-2 overtime decision, folks might have thought it only a speed bump on the
Caps’ path through the playoffs. But in
retrospect, there were warning signs.
The Caps had 47 shots on goal in that game and managed only two goals
against goaltender Jaroslav Halak. And,
the Caps had a bizarre results profile.
Alex Ovechkin was held without a shot on goal (it would be the only game
all season he was held to no shots on goal), while he had five attempts
blocked. Nicklas Backstrom scored a
goal, but he also had six shots on goal; only once all season – regular season
or playoffs – did he have more (seven against Florida on January 29th). Mike Green had six shot attempts, four of
them blocked. Alexander Semin had a
whopping 14 shot attempts and nothing to show for it. In all, half of the Caps’ shot attempts (94)
were either blocked (27) or missed the mark (20).
The Caps hardly fared any better to start Game 2, falling
behind the Canadiens, 2-0, before the game was eight minutes old. When Eric Fehr tied the game in the 11th
minute, it might have signaled a comeback, but Montreal closed the door over
the rest of the period. Then, the
Canadiens went right back to work, getting a pair of goals from Andrei
Kostitsyn less than six minutes apart to make it 4-1 late in the second
period. Nicklas Backstrom got his second
goal of the series less than 90 seconds before the second intermission, but the
Caps were still 20 minutes away from going down, 0-2, and having to travel to
Montreal for Games 3 and 4.
At that point, the sheer advantage in skill took over for
the Caps. Ovechkin and Backstrom scored in the front half of the third period
to tie the game. When Tomas Plekanec scored with barely five minutes left
to give the Canadiens a lead once more, that 0-2 hole looked more and more
likely. However, with just 81 seconds
left in regulation, John Carlson scored to tie the contest again, sending
the teams to overtime.
It took Washington just 31 seconds to break the 5-5 tie and tie
the series, courtesy of Nicklas Backstrom’s hat trick goal and fourth goal of
the series. The Caps avoided a disaster,
but the warning signs were still there.
Ovechkin had 15 shot attempts, seven of them blocked (he did have a
four-point game on a goal and three assists). Green had seven attempts, five of them
blocked. Semin had 13 more shot
attempts, six of them blocked, bringing his two game total to 27 shot attempts,
only 11 of them on goal, and no goals to show for it.
After two games, Montreal was apparently going to let the
Caps chuck pucks from the cheap seats and take their chances with packing in
the defense and blocking shots or forcing misses. In Games 3 and 4 in Montreal, that did not
look like a winning strategy. Washington
won Game 3, 5-1, managing to get 36 shots to the Montreal net among their 68
shot attempts. But lurking behind those
numbers was the matter of who was getting what.
Ovechkin…a goal on his only shot on goal, but otherwise five blocked
shots. Green had seven shot attempts,
three of them blocked. And there was
Semin once more with double-digit shot attempts (12) but six of them blocked.
It hardly seemed to make any difference when the Caps won
Game 4, 6-3, to take a 3-1 lead in the series. But there were still those
persistent ominous signs beneath the surface.
The game was closer than the final score might indicate; it was tied
after 51 minutes of play, the Caps getting three goals in a 6:24 span late in
the third period to break the game open and an empty netter to seal the
win. The Caps once more demonstrated that
if they could get shots to the net (38 of 73 attempts in this game) they could
make Montreal pay, but that was not something they were doing on a game-to-game
basis. And, Green and Semin combined for
17 shot attempts without a goal to show for it in this contest. Through four games, Semin had 48 shot
attempts, only 20 on goal; while Green had 28 shot attempts, only ten on
goal. Neither found the back of the net
in those four games. Even though the
Caps had a 3-1 lead in games and were returning home with a chance to close out
the series, there were problems getting consistent – and in some cases any –
production from their big guns.
Over the course of the team’s history, Game 5 is often
viewed as a pivotal game, especially when carrying a 3-1 lead in games. Three times when taking a 3-1 lead in games
to a Game 5, the Caps lost the series – in 1987 to the New York Islanders, in
1992 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, and in 1995 to the Penguins.
However, having won Games 2-4 by a combined score of 17-9,
and having chased Halak from the Montreal crease in Game 3 and having him sit
out for Game 4 in favor of Carey Price, Game 5 looked like a formality. As it would turn out, Game 5 was one of the
most frustrating games, perhaps, in the history of the franchise.
The Caps pelted Halak, who returned to the crease for this
game, with 15 shots in the first period but found themselves down, 2-0 on early
goals by Mike Cammalleri and Travis Moen.
It was all that Halak would need.
While he did allow a second period goal to Ovechkin, it would be all he
allowed, turning away 37 shots in the odd game in which the Caps got a lot of
shots to the net (37 of 68 attempts) but could not convert. There were the continuing struggles of Semin
(17 attempts, nine on goal, no goals) and Green (seven attempts, three on goal,
no goals). One had to think that if
either or both found their way out of their respective ruts, the Caps would
advance with a win in Game 6.
Over a large population of games, you would expect that the
relative skill of two teams would be reflected in the results. The opposite of this is that in a small
population of games – in this instance two games at most remaining in the
series – things can happen, and an heroic effort is magnified in its importance. Depending on where you sit, the Game 6
performance of Halak in goal for Montreal was either heroic or blind luck.
The Caps recorded five shots on Halak in the first 75
seconds of the game. They had eight
shots before the game was six minutes old.
For all the good it did them.
Mike Cammalleri got the Habs on the board first with a goal at the 7:30
mark, then scored again just 99 seconds later to give Montreal a 2-0 lead. It did not slow the Caps down much; they
would finish the period outshooting Montreal, 18-10, but they still found
themselves on the short end of that 2-0 score.
If the Caps dominated territorially in the first, they did
so to an even greater degree in the second period. They outshot Montreal, 14-3, in the frame but
were stymied by Halak and the Montreal strategy to pack in their defense and
let the Caps bomb away.
It was more of the same in the third period. The Caps had seven shots attempts (four on
goal) in a span of 1:46 early in the period without Montreal recording a shot
attempt in response. When the Canadiens
finally did attempt a shot, it was Maxim Lapierre finding the back of the net
from almost 50 feet out 4:17 into the period to give the Canadiens a 3-0
lead. Eric Fehr got one back for the
Caps with less than five minutes left, but that was as close as Washington
could get in a 4-1 loss. In all, Halak
stopped 53 of 54 shots on goal. It was
the best save percentage by a goaltender facing at least 50 shots in a game
ending in regulation time in the post-2005 lockout era (.981).
Despite outscoring the Canadiens through six games, 21-18;
despite out-shooting them, 250-178; and despite out-attempting them by an
astounding 482-343 margin, it was down to a Game 7 on home ice for the
Caps. It was, in the end, more of the
same. The Caps recorded the first four
shots on goal of the game. They had a
10-6 edge over the first 19 minutes.
However, it was in the last minute of the first period in which it would
be the Canadiens getting the first goal, a power play strike from Marc-Andre
More, more of the same… The Caps added to what would be an
11-8 shots on goal advantage in the first period by outshooting Montreal, 13-3,
in the middle period. Halak turned all
of them away. In the third period, with
the Caps’ season hanging in the balance, the Caps piled up a 7-1 shots on goal
advantage in the first 6:39, a margin that might have been 8-1 (and a tie game)
but for an apparent goal scored by Ovechkin that was disallowed for Mike Knuble
being called in the crease.
Nevertheless, the Caps still had a 12-4 advantage in shots over the
first 16 minutes of the period. It would
be the Canadiens getting the next goal, though, that from Dominic Moore with
just 3:36 left in regulation to provide insurance. Brooks Laich would get that one back 80
seconds later, but it was too late and not enough. Halak stopped 17 of the 18 shots he faced in
the third period, 41 of 42 for the game, and 131 of 134 shots over the last
three games of the series to send the Caps to their most disappointing playoff
exit in this era and arguably in the history of the franchise.
Why was it so frustrating?
- The Caps finished the season with 54 wins to 39 for the
Canadiens, 121 standings points to 88 for the eighth-seed Habs.
- The Caps matched the Canadiens entire season win total (39)
by February 4th, in Game 57 of the season.
- The Caps finished the season first in scoring offense (3.82
goals/game) and goal differential (+1.05 goals/game, a third of a goal per game
over the second place club); Montreal finished 25th (2.56 goals/game) and 18th
(-0.10 goals/game), respectively.
- The Caps led the league in goals for/goals against ratio at
5-on-5 (1.57, a third of a goal per game ahead of the second place finisher);
Montreal finished tied for 22nd (0.90).
- Montreal’s leading goal scorer, Brian Gionta (28), would
have ranked fifth in goals for the Caps in the regular season.
- The Canadiens’ top point-getter, Tomas Plekanec (70) would
have ranked fifth for Washington.
- The Caps had four players with more power play points than
the top point-getter for Montreal (Plekanec: 24)
Then there was the series…
- Alexander Semin: 95 shot attempts, 44 shots on goal… zero
- Mike Green: 58 shot attempts, 23 shots on goal…zero goals
- Alex Ovechkin: 0-for-21 in shooting over the last 156
minutes of the series after scoring 3:53 into the second period of Game 5
- The league’s best power play going 1-for-33 in the series
- The Caps’ penalty killers allowing a power play goal in six
of the seven games
- The Caps allowing the first goal in five games, losing four
- The Caps being outscored in the first periods of games, 9-3;
and being outscored 5-0 in the first periods of Games 5-7, all losses
- The Caps got 37 goals from defensemen in the regular season;
they got two from defensemen in this series (John Carlson, Joe Corvo)
- In Games 1-4 the Caps scored eight of their 19 goals from
beyond 30 feet, according to the official play-by-play. In Games 5-7 they did not score one of their
three total goals outside of 15 feet.
- Montreal finished the series with 194 shots on goal. The Caps had 182 of their shots blocked by
- The Caps displayed a relentless obstinacy in trying to pound
pucks through a Montreal defense deployed to permit only that, evidence of an
inability (or perhaps feeling it unnecessary) to adjust. Meanwhile there was Montreal deploying
Marc-Andre Bergeron as a seventh “defenseman,” but really as a power play
specialist. In Game 7 it mattered. Of his 4:06 in ice time, 2:53 was spent on
the power play, and he scored the game’s first goal on, what else, a power
In retrospect, the disappointment in this outcome runs
deeper. Every path to a Stanley Cup is
different. No two years present the same
obstacles. Looking back on the obstacle
the Caps did not overcome in the first round, one can wonder at what might have
taken place if they had cleared that hurdle.
Had the Caps beaten the Canadiens, and the rest of the first
round played out as it did, they would have faced the Philadelphia Flyers,
winners over the New Jersey Devils in the opening round, in round two. In the season series that year, the Caps went
3-0-1 against the Flyers, winning the last three contests after dropping an
overtime decision in their first meeting, and outscoring Philadelphia overall,
22-13 (14-6 at even strength).
Had they dispatched the Flyers in similar fashion in the
second round, the winner of Pittsburgh and Boston would have been waiting in
the conference final. The Caps swept the
Penguins in the regular season (two of the games settled in extra time), outscoring
the Pens by a 20-13 margin. Had it been
Boston as the conference final opponent, the Caps had a 3-0-1 record against
the Bruins in the season series, all three wins by three-goal margins and
outscoring the B’s by a 14-6 margin.
The regular season is no sure predictor of postseason
success, but that certainly looked like a winnable path to the Stanley Cup
final, where they would have faced the Chicago Blackhawks, a team the Caps
defeated in their only meeting, 4-3 in an overtime decision in Chicago. Not much to go on there, and Chicago had a
12-4 record on their way to the finals, but what a series that might have been.
In the end…
In 2010, “making the playoffs” was not going to cut it. That was a floor for this team, not a
ceiling. Their 54 wins for the season is
a club record and a total that remains unsurpassed in the post 2004-2005
lockout era; their 121 standings points is unmatched in this era and is a record
for a non-Original Six team. Their
scoring offense was, and remains, the most prolific of this era. And it was not a case of coasting into the
postseason; the Caps finished with a 13-2-5 mark after the Olympic break. They did not lose consecutive games in
regulation time in the 2010 portion of the season.
Nevertheless, there were warning signs. First, that 14-game winning streak. It was nice while it lasted, but apart from
it, the Caps were a 112-point team on an 82-game basis. Were they merely a “very good” team as
opposed to a “great” one? Second, there
were those extra-time losses. Only four
teams had more, and three of them – Columbus, Dallas, and Toronto – did not
reach the postseason. Was that evidence
of an inability to finish, despite their gaudy record? Then there was the regular season series
against Montreal. Both teams won two
games, each team scoring 14 goals over the four games. Three of the games were decided by one goal,
the other by two when the Caps scored with just over three minutes left in
regulation for a two-goal winning margin.
Did Montreal set up as the Caps’ worst possible first-round
opponent? Finally, there was the series
nemesis, goaltender Jaroslav Halak. He
did not play a single minute against the Capitals in the regular season; Carey
Price took all the minutes. Halak did
not have an especially impressive career record against the Caps (3-2-0, 2.60,
.905 in five appearances), but the Caps did not see him in the 2009-2010
regular season. Did the Caps take him
Even with all of that, there can be no sponging away the
disappointment of losing a 3-1 lead in games and the series to a club they
finished 33 points ahead of in the regular season. It ended up being the latest (at the time)
episode in a horror show of blowing 3-1 leads against inferior opponents in an
early playoff round. It stands alone as
the most disappointing postseason edition of the Capitals in team history and
certainly the most disappointing one in the current playoff era.
Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
* Don’t worry. We have not given up looking at the Caps’
most memorable goals. We’ll be coming
back series, too.