Tuesday, July 28, 2015

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

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 this exchange…

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 are blueberries.
Jim: I've mistaken blueberries for blueberries?
Alex: Exactly!

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 a postseason).

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 series.  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 calendar year.

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.  It would be the first in what would be an irritating trend of losses in the last two months.  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 Bergeron.

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 goals
  • 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 (3.0 percent)
  • 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 of them
  • 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 Canadiens.
  • 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 play.

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 too lightly?

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.

1 comment:

Jalabar said...

And then, what you did not comment on but what may make this THE most heartbreaking loss in Caps' history is what came next. based off the results of this series the Capitals attempted to change their identity into one that DID NOT Mesh with the personnel OR the coaching staff, and ultimately led to the termination of a damn fine coach AND the wandering in the wilderness this team did for the 4-5 years following that 2010 series. They were the most dangerous team in hockey, a team that terrified opponents on a regular basis that they might get blown out in embarrassing fashion at any moment, and they TURNED THEMSELVES into a mediocre, middle-of-the-road borderline-playoff hockey team based mostly on the results of this series.