Tuesday, August 04, 2015

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

In our first look at ranking playoffs in the Rock the Red era from most disappointing to most pleasant surprise, we talked about the 2010 postseason that ended after one round, the Presidents Trophy edition of the Washington Capitals blowing a 3-1 lead in games and losing to the eighth-seed Montreal Canadiens in 2010.  Now, in the second installment, we take a look at a club that experienced the highest of highs, then the lowest of lows.

6. 2009: Anybody but Those Guys

The Washington Capitals returned to the postseason in 2008 after a three season absence, losing in excruciating fashion to the Philadelphia Flyers in overtime of Game 7 after winning Games 5 and 6 to force a deciding game on home ice.  It was a hard learning experience, one that would be put to the test the following season when the Caps won the Southeast Division for the second straight season, improving by 14 standings points over the previous season and finishing second in the Eastern Conference. 

The Caps drew the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2009 postseason, a team they had not faced in the postseason since 1994, when they lost to the eventual Stanley Cup champions in five games.  Things started according to the script, if the Caps were doing the screenwriting.  After a scoreless first period of Game 1, Tomas Fleischmann put the Caps on top on a power play goal.  It went bad quickly for the home team, though, not long after that goal.  Scott Gomez tied the game on a power play goal just 69 seconds after Fleischmann’s tally.  It got worse for the Caps, in more than one way, as the period was winding down.  John Erskine took a penalty for the Caps, and Nik Antropov converted on the ensuing power play.  Less than a minute after Antropov’s goal, Sergei Fedorov was sent to the box for the Caps, and Markus Naslund converted that power play chance to put the Rangers up, 3-1.  The Caps tied the game on a pair of goals wrapped around the second intermission, Viktor Kozlov scoring in the last minute of the second period and Alexander Semin scoring before the third period was two minutes old.  The Caps could not pull ahead, though, as Brandon Dubinsky put the Rangers in front seconds after a Capitals power play ended, faking Jeff Schultz to the ice, cutting in, and beating goalie Jose Theodore for what would be the game-winning goal.

Losing Game 1 on home ice was a problem, and the Caps addressed part of it with a change in goal for Game 2.  Semyon Varlamov replaced Theodore, and the move had the intended effect.  Varlamov stopped 23 of 24 shots, allowing only a first-period goal by Ryan Callahan.  The trouble was, at the other end of the ice Henrik Lundqvist stopped all 35 shots he faced to get the 1-0 win and put the Caps in a deep hole, taking a 2-0 lead in games and heading back to New York for Games 3 and 4.

Varlamov became the unexpected star of the two games in New York.  He shut out the Rangers in Game 3, stopping all 33 shots he faced in a 4-0 win.  Then, he turned aside 19 of 21 shots in Game 4.  But there was Lundqvist once more, allowing only a third-period goal by Alex Ovechkin among the 39 shots he faced to give the Rangers a 3-1 lead in Games heading back to Washington for Game 5.

It was the second straight playoff series in which the Caps faced a 1-3 deficit in games and the sixth time in their history.  Only once in five previous episodes – the first time they faced such a deficit – did they win the series, defeating the Philadelphia Flyers in seven games in 1988, winning that series in overtime of Game 7 on a goal by Dale Hunter.  History was not on the Caps’ side.

The Caps did enough to fight another day when they started with a shorthanded goal by Matt Bradley less than five minutes into Game 5 – one of two goals he would have for the game (his first two career playoff goals and his only career two-goal game in the postseason) – and never looked back, riding an 18-save effort from Varlamov to a 4-0 win to force Game 6 in New York.  The Caps jumped all over the Rangers in the first period of Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, getting goals by three different defensemen (Milan Jurcina, Mike Green, and Tom Poti) to take a 3-1 lead after 20 minutes.  The Caps added a pair of goals in the second period and held on to defeat the Rangers, 5-3, to force a Game 7 in Washington.

Game 7 was the sixth such game that the Caps played on home ice in franchise history.  They lost four of the previous five, two of them in overtime (1987 to the Islanders and the 2008 loss to the Flyers).  As this game progressed, it seemed as if another overtime might be in store. The teams exchanged goals in the first period, the Rangers opening the scoring on a goal by Nik Antropov and the Caps getting the equalizer from Alexander Semin.  Both Varlamov and Lundqvist were perfect in goal in the second period, making it seem that much more likely that the series would be settled in an extra frame.

The Caps came out strong in the third period, Ovechkin drawing a penalty on Dan Girardi, then recording three shots on the ensuing power play.  None got past Lundqvist, though.  It did not slow the Caps down much, however, as they would record the first seven shots in the period through the eight-minute mark.  Washington could not keep up the pace, going seven minutes without a shot on goal after that early flurry.

It was the eighth shot for the Caps that turned the series.   The play started when the Rangers’ Sean Avery took a long pass from Derek Morris and circled into the Capitals’ end.  Avery dropped the puck for Brandon Dubinsky trailing the play, and Dubinsky fired a shot that was high and wide over Varlamov’s blocker on the long side.  The puck slid up the wall where Matt Bradley was first to it.  With his back to the open ice, Bradley backhanded a pass to Sergei Fedorov streaking out of the zone.  Fedorov charged up the right wing in front of the players benches and into the Rangers’ end.   With defenseman Wade Redden trying to keep a reasonable distance and drive Fedorov wide, Fedorov slammed on the brakes just inside the far edge of the right wing circle.  It was enough to create some space as Redden tried to stop in time to maintain his proximity to the puckhandler.  Fedorov then snapped a shot past Redden and over Lundqvist’s glove under the crossbar with 4:59 left to send the Verizon Center crowd into a delirium.

If the last 4:59 seemed like an eternity to Caps fans, it was something else for the players on the ice.  They did not back off and play prevent defense, taking play to the Rangers and outshooting them, 5-0, after the Fedorov goal to clinch the series with a 2-1 win and a meeting in the second round with the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Washington finished the season nine points ahead of the Penguins in the regular season and went 3-0-1 in the season series against Pittsburgh.  The Pens dispatched the Philadelphia Flyers in six games for the pleasure of trying to reverse those results against the Caps in the second round.

The series was billed as the first of what promised to be many postseason battles between Alex Ovechkin and the Penguins’ Sidney Crosby.  Neither had disappointed in the first round, Ovechkin going 3-4-7, plus-5 against the Rangers, and Crosby going 4-4-8, plus-2 against the Flyers.  Both scored in the first period of Game 1, Crosby opening the scoring four minutes into the period and Ovechkin scoring a 5-on-3 power play goal late in the period to break a 1-1 tie to give the Caps the lead at the first intermission.

The second period, however, belonged to Caps goalie Semyon Varlamov, both bad and good.  The bad came just before the 13-minute mark of the period when he misplayed a shot by Penguin defenseman Mark Eaton off his glove to allow the Penguins to tie the game.  The good more than made up for that with just under two minutes in the period.  The play began as the Penguins’ Crosby and Chris Kunitz move the puck up ice on a two-on-two rush.  Crosby left the puck for Kunitz just over the Caps’ blue line as the two were crossing in the middle of the ice.  As Kunitz carried the puck through the right wing circle, Crosby went to the net, getting a half step on Caps defenseman Tom Poti.  With Varlamov squaring up to defend Kunitz, the Penguin forward slid the puck across to Crosby, who had an open net at which to shoot.  Poti might have gotten just enough of Crosby’s stick to muffle a shot, giving Varlamov just that split second to lunge across the crease and get the blade of his stick on the puck on the goal line, turning it out of harm’s way.  For Varlamov and the Caps, it was the save of the playoffs.

Having dodged that bullet to take the tied game to the second intermission, the Caps scored early in the third period on a goal by Tomas Fleischmann.  After that the game was left in Varlamov’s hands.  He was up to the challenge, shutting out Pittsburgh in the third period, and the Caps had a 3-2 win in Game 1. 

If Game 1 was exciting, Game 2 was what hockey fans dreamed of – two players at the top of their respective games in a mano-a-mano battle.  Sidney Crosby opened the scoring with a power play goal less than seven minutes into the game.  Alex Ovechkin countered with a goal barely two minutes into the second period.  Crosby again at the 10:57 mark put the Pens back in the lead.  After a goal by David Steckel to tie the game late in the second period, Ovechkin gave the Caps their first lead at 12:53 of the third on a power play.  Ovechkin seemed to drive the last nail in the Penguins’ coffin with less than five minutes left, recording the hat trick goal – his first career playoff hat trick – that would result in a lengthy delay as the ice was cleared of hats, prompting Crosby to ask officials to make an announcement to have the fans stop throwing hats on the ice.  Crosby was not done though.  He swatted a puck out of mid-air from the goal line extended to record his own hat trick and get the Penguins within a goal with 30.4 seconds left.  That would be as close as Pittsburgh would get, though, and the Caps had a 2-0 lead heading to Pittsburgh.

Two things to note here about the Caps’ 2-0 lead in games.  First, it was arguably the high point of the season to date (and, in retrospect, of their season).  Second, there is a saying that a series does not begin until a team wins on the road.  The Caps would get close to getting that road win in Game 3, forcing overtime when Nicklas Backstrom tied the game with less than two minutes left on a power play.  Close would be as far as the Caps would get, though, as Kris Letang saved the Penguins from falling into an 0-3 hole when he fired a shot that was redirected off a Caps defenseman and off the left pipe past Varlamov.

From such thin margins series turn.  The seeds were being planted that would bloom later in the series for the Pens; they out-shot the Caps, 42-23, in Game 3, and they recorded a total of 66 shot attempts to 43 for Washington.  It would be more of the same in Game 4.  The Caps scored on a Backstrom goal just 36 seconds into the game, but the Penguins roared back with three of their own to take a 3-1 lead to the first intermission on their way to a 5-3 win.  After the onslaught of shots in Game 3, Varlamov was shaky in goal in Game 4, sending the teams back to Washington tied 2-2.

Game 5 was cruel forthe Caps and their fans.  After a scoreless first period, the Caps held a lead at the second intermission, 2-1, courtesy of goals by Ovechkin and Backstrom.  Pittsburgh took the lead in the third on goals by Ruslan Fedotenko and former Capital Matt Cooke.  Ovechkin tied the game late – his tenth of the playoffs and seventh of this series – finishing a pass from Backstrom with a shot from the right wing circle.  It was all either team could muster in regulation, going to overtime tied, 3-3.  Less than two minutes into the overtime Milan Jurcina tripped Evgeni Malkin as Malkin was splitting Jurcina and Sergei Fedorov to break in alone on Varlamov.  Rather than have a penalty shot awarded, the Penguins went to the power play.  With the power play running out, Malkin had the puck on his stick heading down the right wing.  As he was doing so, Sidney Crosby was charging to the net on the far side.  As Malkin broke through the right wing faceoff circle, he sent a pass across to Crosby.  It never reached its intended target.  That was because Tom Poti, defending Malkin on the play, dove to break up the pass.  He got just enough of the puck to redirect it past Varlamov on the short side, giving the Penguins the first road win of the series.

Once more, the Penguins pounded the Caps on the shot meter, winning that battle, 42-31.  It left Caps fans wondering if there was anything left in the tank for Game 6 in Pittsburgh with the Penguins in a position to clinch the series.  The Caps proved that there was something left.  They fell behind early, then they allowed a game-tying goal late.  But, six minutes into the overtime, David Steckel won a faceoff to the left of Penguin goalie Marc-Andre Fleury.  The puck made its way around the wall to Brooks Laich at the right point.  Laich fired an innocent looking shot at the net, and Steckel redirected it past Fleury on the short side to send the Caps off as winners, 5-4, in overtime to ensure a Game 7 in Washington.

While the Caps showed that there was something left in the tank in Game 6, it came at a price.  It was the third time in four games that Pittsburgh recorded 42 shots on goal.  The Pens had out-shot the Caps, 226-159 through six games.  Could the Caps muster one last big effort, on home ice, in Game 7?  It would have helped to get an early goal to establish some momentum, and the Caps got their chance three minutes into the game with the puck on the stick of the player they would want taking the shot.  Alex Ovechkin had a clean breakaway on Fleury and deked the goalie to the ice.  However, Ovechkin’s forehand attempt did not clear Fleury’s left pad, and the chance was foiled. 

Failing to capitalize on the early chance, the Caps were slowly worn down by the Penguins, the cumulative effect of the shot differential over six games taking its toll.  The Penguins outshot the Caps, 4-2 over the next nine and a half minutes, then scored the game’s first goal at the 12:36 mark, that by Crosby.  Craig Adams scored eight seconds later.  Then, the Penguins scored goals less than two minutes apart early in the second period to chase Varlamov out of the crease in favor of Jose Theodore.  They scored a fifth goal at the 11:37 mark.  The competitive portion of the game – of the series – was over.  Ovechkin and Crosby exchanged goals, and Brooks Laich provided the last goal of the contest, the Penguins finishing on top, 6-2, to advance to the conference final.

The disappointment in this postseason was in how far the Caps fell from their height, a streak of five wins to close the opening round series against the Rangers and to open the second round series against their arch-rivals, the Penguins.  Despite a slow start in the Rangers series, the Caps got hot at the right time and as a product of their best players standing out.  Ovechkin was 7-4-11, plus-6, in his first nine games of this postseason.  Backstrom had ten assists in those nine games.  Alexander Semin was 5-5-10, plus-4.  Mike Green was 1-5-6 from the blue line.  And, there was the rookie goaltender Semyon Varlamov, who came in relief of Jose Theodore  twice to finally assume the number one duties, going  6-2, 1.51, .945, with two shutouts through Game 2 of the Penguin series.  The Caps were within a shot off iron in overtime of putting the Penguins in an 0-3 hole in that second round series.  They allowed a fluke redirection goal in overtime on home ice to give back the 2-0 lead they earned to start the series and allow the Penguins to take a 3-2 lead.  Even with that, they fought back to tie the series one last time with an overtime win on the road.

They were so, so close.

It might as well have been a mile.  And, what makes it more difficult is that the Penguins would go on to win the Stanley Cup, defeating the Carolina Hurricanes in a four-game sweep in the conference final (a team the Caps finished nine points ahead of in the regular season), then beating the Detroit Red Wings in seven game in a rematch of the 2008 Stanley Cup final (the Caps defeated the Red Wings in their only meeting of 2008-2009). 

In the end, it was one of those “if only” sorts of postseasons.  If only Kris Letang’s shot in overtime of Game 3 rang off the pipe and out.  If only Tom Poti got a little more of the puck on his dive to stop Evgeni Malkin’s pass in overtime of Game 5.  If only Alex Ovechkin’s breakaway early in Game 7 had been a momentum-building score instead of a Marc-Andre Fleury save that sucked the oxygen out of Verizon Center.  If only it had not been the Penguins, of all teams, that would beat the Caps – again, the seventh time in eight postseason series between the clubs won by Pittsburgh and third that was lost in seven games by the Caps.  Then for them to go on to win the Cup.  It made that special moment when Sergei Fedorov scored the game-winning goal in Game 7 against the Rangers seem so long ago, as if it was a different season altogether.

If only it was anybody but those guys.

Photo: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports