Sunday, August 09, 2015

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

In our first two installments of looking at the playoff history in the “Rock the Red” era of the Washington Capitals we touched on two postseasons that were clearly disappointments, if for entirely different reasons. We now enter that part of the history that is a bit more conflicted, starting with a postseason that started well, ended poorly, perhaps a reflection of a team that was not what it seemed to be.

5. 2011: Live on the Edge, and You Might Fall Over It

The 2010-2011 season was one long effort at trying to repair the damage done as a result of the Washington Capitals’ far-too-early exit from the 2010 playoffs.  The Caps finished the 2009-2010 season with the league’s best record and its most fearsome offense, then blew a three-games-to-one lead in the first round of the playoffs in losing to the Montreal Canadiens in seven games in the most disappointing playoff exit in club history.

If the Caps of the 2010-2011 regular season were not the explosive and dominating team of 2009-2010, they were a consistent one.  In eight ten-game segments of the season they recorded fewer than ten standings points only once (a 4-5-1 record for Games 51-60).  They were also different in other respects.  Their scoring offense was down by more than a goal per game from the previous season (from 3.82 to 2.67). and their scoring differential was down by two thirds (from +1.05 goals per game to +0.34).   Five-on-five play was tighter, the Caps finishing with a goals-for/goals-against ratio of 1.07 versus 1.57 in 2009-2010.  And, while their special teams index was largely unchanged (104.0 in 2009-2010 to 103.1 in 2010-2011), the Caps got there in a very different way in 2010-2011.  Their power play dropped in efficiency from 25.2 percent to 17.5, while their power play jumped from 78.8 percent to 85.6.

It was a team that played games much closer to the margin.  They played in 46 one-goal games in 2010-2011 to a 26-9-11 record (including q 5-6 record in the Gimmick) versus 41 games in 2009-2010 to a 20-8-13 record (also with a 5-6 record in the Gimmick).  The bigger difference was in decisions of three or more goals.  The Caps won 22 such decisions in 2009-2010 (a 22-6 record), while they only had 22 such decisions in total in 2010-2011 (14-8 record).

Individually, production was down in 2010-2011, too.  As a group, the 22 skaters appearing in both seasons for the Caps scored almost 100 fewer goals in 2010-2011 (189) than in 2009-2010 (283).  That group had a total of 40 power play goals in 2010-2011 compared to 74 the previous season.  The drop was especially felt among the “Young Guns.”  Alex Ovechkin’s goal total dropped by 18 (from 50 to 32), his power play goals by six (from 13 to 7).  Nicklas Backstrom’s goal totals dropped by 15 overall (from 33 to 18), and his power play goals dropped by seven (from 11 to 4).  For Alexander Semin it was a drop of 12 goals overall (40 to 28) and two on the power play (8 to 6).  Mike Green lost 33 games to injury in 2010-2011, but his goal total dropping by more than half (from 19 to 8) overall and by half on the power play (from 10 to 5) from the previous year was still significant.

With all of that, however, the Caps still finished the regular season with a 48-23-11 record (107 points), the top-seed in the Eastern Conference and holders of the second-best record in the league (Vancouver: 54-19-9/117 points).  It was a reflection, one might say, of better balance between a potent offense and a decent, if unspectacular defense.  It could have been said that the Caps got there by playing “the right way,” when some thought they did not do so the previous season.  It earned the Capitals a rematch in the first round with 2009’s first-round opponent, the New York Rangers.

The two teams had very different run-ups to the postseason.  After getting pasted at home by the Rangers, 6-0, on February 25th the Caps finished the season 16-3-1 over their last 20 games of the season.  Meanwhile, after the Rangers won five in a row in mid-March, they stumbled to a 4-3-1 record in their last eight games.  There was, however, an “X” factor.  In his last two appearances of the season against the Caps, Ranger goaltender Henrik Lundqvist shut out the Caps, once on 31 shots in a 7-0 win at Madison Square Garden in December, and the 6-0 shutout on 35 shots in February at Verizon Center in Washington.  In Game 1 of their opening round matchup, Lundqvist picked up right where he left off for the Rangers, turning away all 17 shots he faced over the first two periods.  For the Caps, goalie Michal Neuvirth matched Lundqvist in the goals allowed department, stopping all 11 shots he faced in the first 40 minutes.  Just two minutes into the third period, though, the Rangers broke the ice.  Brandon Prust outfought John Erskine for a loose puck in the corner to Neuvirth’s right, slid it along the end wall to Wojtek Wolski, and Wolski sent it out to Matt Gilroy for a one-timer that beat Neuvirth to make it 1-0.

Lundqvist threatened to make that goal stand up, blanking the Caps over the first 13 minutes of the period.  In the 14th minute, however, the Caps broke out of their own end with a long pass from Mike Green to Alex Semin at the red line.  The puck squirted forward where Alex Ovechkin took over.  Ovechkin skated in but was interrupted by defenseman Dan Girardi, who was knocked to the ice for his trouble.  Semin collected the loose puck but lost control of it at the post to Lundqvist’s right.  Ovechkin took several whacks at it, and just before defenseman Marc Staal could tackle him at the post, Ovechkin batted the puck past Lundqvist to tie the game. 

That would be it for the scoring in regulation.  The first overtime seemed to be heading to its end without resolution when the Caps pinned the Rangers in their own end with a withering forecheck.  Unable to get the puck out on two clearing attempts, the puck settled on the stick of Jason Arnott at the right wing wall.  He fed Alexander Semin in the high slot, and Semin one-timed the puck past Lundqvist’s blocker to give the Caps the win in Game 1.

It was more of the same to start Game 2 – closely played by both teams in a scoreless first period.  The Caps struck twice, however, early in the second period.  Jason Chimera rewarded himself for hard work along the wall to keep the puck in the Ranger end by heading to the slot and one-timing a pass from Marcus Johansson through Lundqvist to give the Caps the lead.  Less than two minutes later, with Ryan McDonagh in the penalty box for the Rangers, Jason Arnott put back a rare rebound given up by Lundqvist to give the Caps a 2-0 lead.  Neuvirth did the rest, shutting out the Rangers with 22 saves to send the Caps to New York with a 2-0 lead in games.

Five times to that point in franchise history the Caps took 2-0 leads into Game 3.  Their record in Games 3 in those instances: 0-5.  And, they went on to lose four of those series.  If a two-goal lead is thought to be the most dangerous lead in hockey, then for the Caps a 2-0 lead in games was uniquely hazardous.  Game 3 unfolded as if it would be no exception.  The Caps seemed to be a step behind throughout.  After another scoreless first period – the third straight in this series – the Rangers broke through on a power play goal by Erik Christensen early in the second period.  Ovechkin tied the contest in the last minute of the third period, but the Rangers regained the lead on a Vinny Prospal goal in the ninth minute of the third period.  Washington tied the game a second time on a power play goal by Mike Knuble with just over five minutes left in regulation, and it seemed as if the teams would go to overtime for the second time in this series. 

It did not.  With the clock winding down under two minutes to play, Brandon Dubinsky walked out from the corner to Neuvirth’s right.  He pulled the puck to his forehand as he closed on the net, but his shot popped into the air in the Washington crease.  Neuvirth lost sight of the puck, and it dropped to his left and bounced into the net to give the Rangers a 2-1 win.

The teams returned to form in Game 4, failing to score in the first period.  In the second period, every Capital fan’s nightmare seemed to be playing out.  Artem Anisimov scored less than six minutes into the period.  Then, the Rangers scored goals seven seconds apart later in the period – Marian Gaborik and Dubinsky doing the damage – to take a 3-0 lead into the third period.

The Caps came out hard in the third period, recording five shots in the first 2:45 of the period.  It was the sixth shot that got the Caps back in the game.  With the Rangers changing personnel, Ryan McDonagh held the puck behind the Ranger net.  When the changes were finished, McDonagh tried to send the puck up the left wing to Gaborik.  What he didn’t see was Alexander Semin ready to pounce on the pass.  Semin intercepted the puck and circled in through the right wing circle.  His first shot was stopped by Lundqvist, but the puck was not secured under the goalie.  Semin poked it free and over the goal line, and the Caps – over the protests of Lundqvist that he froze the puck – were on the board. 

Less than a minute later, the Caps got to within a goal on a play that started when Marcus Johansson fed the puck across to Brooks Laich in the left wing faceoff circle.  The puck bounced over Laich’s stick, but he chased it down along the wall.  From there he sent the puck back in front where Johansson was setting up.  Johansson angled his stick blade and redirected the puck past Lundqvist’s left pad to make it 3-2 with more than 16 minutes still left in regulation.

It looked as if that would be as close as the Caps would get, but then the kids took over.  Karl Alzner (playing in his fifth career postseason game) fed the puck across to John Carlson (playing in his 11th post season game) for a one-time blast that threaded its way to the front of the Ranger net.  Johansson (playing in his fourth career playoff game) redirected the puck past Lundqvist, and the game was tied with just under eight minutes left. 

Neither team could find the tie-breaker in what remained of regulation time, meaning that the teams would go to an extra session for the third time in four games.  Neuvirth (nine saves) and Lundqvist (13 saves) took the teams to a second overtime period, and each netminder had four saves in the first 12 minutes of the second extra period.  Rod Serling could have narrated what happened next.  The Caps broke out of their own end, Carlson sending the puck from behind his net along the wall to Eric Fehr at the right wing boards.  Fehr chipped the puck out to Johansson heading up the right side.  Just inside the Ranger blue line Johansson dropped the puck to Jason Chimera.  Up to this point it looked like a dozen other plays over the first 92 minutes.  But then Chimera took the shot.  It was deadened by defenseman Bryan McCabe and slid slowly toward the Ranger net.  Instead of allowing Lundqvist to smother the puck with his glove for a faceoff, Marian Gaborik tried to get his stick on the puck and slide it out of harm’s way.  Between his stick and Lundqvist’s glove, the puck snuck through and into the blue paint in front of the Ranger net and at the feet of Chimera.  With barely a foot between the puck and the goal line, it was quite literally a tap-in for the game-winner 12:36 into the second overtime.  The Caps had a 3-1 lead heading back to Washington.

Taking 3-1 leads into Game 5 has been a bitter experience for the Capitals over the years, but this time would be different.  The Caps played with focus and purpose from the drop of the puck.  They were rewarded just before the six-minute mark of the period when Mike Green took advantage of a Bryan McCabe penalty to give the Caps the lead on the ensuing power play.  It would be their only goal despite outshooting the Rangers by a 13-6 margin in the period.  The Caps got their second in the second period on a highlight reel play from Ovechkin.  After Jeff Schultz did some hard work to free the puck from the corner to the left of goalie Michal Neuvirth, Nicklas Backstrom started the puck up ice.  From Backstrom to Brooks Laich to Scott Hannan, it eventually found its way to the stick of Ovechkin at the red line.  Ovechkin caught Ranger defenseman Marc Staal in a bad place, facing up ice at the Ranger blue line.  That was a signal to Ovechkin to head into a higher gear.  Staal could not get turned in time, and Ovechkin had the positional edge, using his speed and strength to curl in on Lundqvist.  Ovechkin pulled the puck across the low slot to his backhand and flipped it past Lundqvist’s right pad, leaving the goalie face-down on the ice and the Caps with a 2-0 lead.  The teams played an even third period over the first 15 minutes, suiting the Caps just fine.  Alexander Semin stuck in the dagger when he and Marcus Johansson broke out on a 2-on-1 rush.  Johansson carried the puck into the zone and fed it across to Semin for the one-timer that clinched the series for the Caps.  Wojtek Wolski scored with a half-minute left to ruin Michal Neuvirth’s shutout, but it was not nearly enough to keep the Caps from heading to the second round as the only team in the East to advance to the second round in less than seven games.

In the second round the Caps faced the Tampa Bay Lightning, a club they faced only once before in team playoff history, a six-game loss in 2003, losing the last four games in succession, including the series-clinching Game 6 in triple overtime at home.  It was hard to get a read on these teams based on the season series.  The Caps won the first two games in impressive fashion by scores of 6-3 and 6-0.  The Lightning came back to win the third and fourth games, played just eight days apart in early January, by shutout -- 1-0 in overtime and 3-0.  Washington closed out the series with a pair of wins to take the series overall, 4-2.

Tampa took the early advantage in the first period of Game 1, getting a goal by Sean Bergenheim barely two minutes into the contest.  The Caps answered with a pair of goals wrapped around the first intermission, and it looked as if they were going to be able to use the same sort of stifling defense they used against the Rangers to carry that lead to a Game 1 win.  However, the Lightning struck for two goals late in the second period and then applied some stifling defense of their own.  The Caps had only five shots on goal in the third period, and Tampa Bay scored an empty net goal with 40 seconds left to take Game 1, 4-2. 

What Game 4 would be for the Capitals in their opening round series in New York against the Rangers, Game 2 would be for the Lightning in Washington against the Caps.  The teams took a 1-1 tie into the third period of the context, Tampa Bay scoring first in the opening frame and Brooks Laich tying it up in the second for the Caps.  Martin St. Louis, who scored the goal in triple overtime to eliminate the Caps in 2003, put the Lightning ahead in the eighth minute of the third period when his shot caromed off the skate of Caps defenseman Mike Green and past Neuvirth.  It might have been a frustrating way to give up a game-winning goal, except Alex Ovechkin got the Caps even with a goal with just 1:08 left in regulation.  In overtime, the Caps were burned by a sluggish line change.  As the Caps were swapping out players, Randy Jones chased the puck into the corner in his own end and sent it up the wall to Teddy Purcell at the Caps’ blue line.  It created a two-on-one advantage for the Lightning, Jones chipping a backhand pass across and out of the reach of Green that allowed Vincent Lecavalier an open opportunity to chip the puck over Neuvirth for the 3-2 win and a 2-0 lead in games.

Losing Games 1 and 2 of a seven-game series on home ice was not common in Caps history, having occurred only once before.  However, that one time was in 2009 against the New York Rangers, a team they eventually defeated in seven games.  When the Caps erased an early Lightning lead with a goal in the first minute of the second period by Mike Knuble and John Carlson’s first of the postseason eight minutes into the period, it looked as if the Caps might repeat their 2009 success against the Lightning.  Even when the Lightning tied the game up on a Lecavalier goal, the Caps regained the lead before the second intermission on a power play goal by Ovechkin, his fifth of the playoffs.  Whatever confidence Caps fans might have had that the team would turn the tables and beat Tampa Bay on their ice ended in an instant.  Steven Stamkos tied the game once more 5:23 into the third period, and Ryan Malone scored the game-winner 24 seconds later, converting a feed to the goal mouth by Nate Thompson. 

Instead of being in a position to play a Game 4 to tie the series before sending it back to Washington, the Caps were playing not to be swept for the third time in a seven game series in franchise history, dropping a four-game series to the Boston Bruins in the 1990 conference final and then again to the Detroit Red Wings in the 1998 Stanley Cup final.

One last time, the Lightning had the better finishing kick.  After exchanging goals in the first period, the Caps getting their first of the postseason from late-season acquisition Marco Sturm to answer a Ryan Malone strike, the Lightning slowly but steadily pulled away in the last 40 minutes.  Sean Bergenheim scored his third and fourth goals of the series eight minutes apart to give the Lightning a 3-1 lead.  The Caps drew within a goal 13:40 into the period, but it seemed more accident than plan. A battle for the puck behind the Tampa Bay net resulted in the puck sliding up the left wing boards.  Defenseman John Erskine pinched in and stopped the puck outside the faceoff circle hash marks.  In one motion he just flung the puck at the Lightning net, and the it sailed over goalie Dwayne Roloson’s right shoulder on the near side, just under the crossbar to make it 3-2 at the second intermission.

Tampa Bay wrapped things up in the third period, though.  The irony of it was that the game-winning goal would be scored on a power play by Marc-Andre Bergeron, who, when he was playing for Montreal in 2010 scored a power play goal in Game 7 to start the Canadiens to their series-clinching victory.   The goal seemed to stun the Caps, who were outshot by the Lightning, 4-0, over the next three minutes and 7-5 from the Bergeron goal to the 16:52 mark.  At that point, the old Caps nemesis, Martin St. Louis, drove the last nail into the coffin of the Caps’ season, snapping a shot from between the hash marks in the slot past John Carlson and Neuvirth to make it 5-2.  Carlson scored for the Caps 62 seconds after the St. Louis goal, but the damage was done, and there was too little time left in the season to rally. 

In the end, the disappointment was more in how quickly and meekly the Caps went in the second round.  It was a lot of little things and two big things.  Among the little things, the Caps could not take advantage of dominant possession numbers.  The Caps enjoyed a Corsi-for plus-minus of plus-45 over the four games (56.4 percent) for the series overall and plus-27 in close-score situations (55.4 percent).  The Caps won 51.5 percent of the faceoffs in the series.  They out-hit the Lightning, 98-79.  They could not take advantage.  On the other side, they lost the turnover battle, 57-73.  They allowed the first goal in all four games.  The allowed the first goal in the third period and overtime in all four games.  The only goals they got from defensemen were a pair from John Carlson and one from John Erskine, and Washington had only five points from defensemen in the series (Mike Green and Erskine had assists).  The little things the Caps did right didn’t matter, and the ones they did not they could not overcome. 

Then there were the two big things.  First, Michal Neuvirth had two utterly different series in the postseason.  Against the Rangers he was 4-1, 1.37, .946, with a shutout.  Against the Lightning he was 0-4, 3.74, .867.  He stopped just 18 of 23 shots in the third period and overtime against Tampa Bay (.783 save percentage).  Then there was Nicklas Backstrom.  He was almost invisible in the playoffs overall and especially against the Lightning.  The seeds of that disappointment were likely planted long before the postseason started.  In a 1-0 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in late February, Backstrom took a slash from Kris Letang, breaking the thumb on his left hand, his dominant hand as a left-handed shooter.  He went all nine games of the postseason without a goal on 25 shots, and he managed only two assists, one in each series.  He was really not the same after the injury sustained in Pittsburgh.  In 25 games to close the season, including the nine he played in the postseason, Backstrom was 3-11-14.and did not score a goal in his last 17 games.  That was perhaps the single biggest hole in production the Caps could not fill in.

Being down to a one-handed first line center in the conference semi-final is not a reliable recipe for success, but the Caps did enough things right, especially in terms of possession, that a loss to the Lightning, not to mention a sweep, was confounding.  And while beating the Lightning was no guarantee of success (the Caps were the East’s top seed but lost three of four games to the Boston Bruins – the team they would have met in the conference final -- in the regular season), it was a disappointment to bow out for the second year in a row as the Eastern Conference top seed without advancing to the conference final.

Perhaps if Backstrom was healthy, the Caps might have gotten off to a better start at home to start the series against the Lightning and changed the tone of the series.  It made for an especially disappointing end to what was a solid season by the Caps to that point, dissolving into an “if only” sort of conclusion.  The trouble is, it is always something with this team – a hot opposing goaltender, a fortuitous bounce for the other team, unfortunate timing for an injury to one of their best players.  And once more, the Caps failed to reach a conference final.

Photo: Scott Audette/NHLI via Getty Images