Tuesday, August 11, 2015

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

Disappointments and pleasant surprises are, for the Washington Capitals fan, a long history of understanding the meaning of the term, “asymmetry.” There have been far more disappointments in the playoffs than pleasant surprises, especially as the years go on.  We are at the mid-point of our look at the Rock the Red era of Capitals playoff history, and we are still dealing with the matter of disappointments.

4. 2013: “Horseshoes and Hand Grenades”

The 2013 season for the Washington Capitals was a strange one, as it was for all 30 NHL teams, albeit to differing degrees.  There was the matter of it being the “2013 season,” not the 2012-2013 season.  That was the product of a labor-management dispute that cost the league the 2012 portion of its season and 34 regular season games. 

For the Capitals it was a case of not only losing 34 regular season games off their schedule, but gaining something as well – their third head coach in seven months.  After Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his duties on November 28, 2011, former Capitals captain Dale Hunter was tasked with taking the helm to try to save the 2011-2012 season.  He lasted until the Caps were eliminated from the playoffs the following spring, returning to his London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League.  In June 2012 the Caps hired Adam Oates, previously an assistant with the New Jersey Devils and the 18th-highest point-getter in Caps history as a center for six seasons from 1996 to 2002.  It was the fifth straight hire of a first-time NHL head coach by the Caps.  The average tenure of the previous four was 185 games.  More was hoped for from the hall of famer Oates.

One of the things one might have hoped for under the new regime was stability, especially after a season with another in-season change behind the bench (like Hunter in 2012, his two immediate predecessors – Bruce Boudreau and (edit) Glen Hanlon – were in-season replacements).  Instead, Oates made perhaps the most potentially destabilizing move possible, that of flipping Alex Ovechkin from his left wing position – one from which he had earned five first-team NHL all-star positions and two second-team positions – to the right wing.

With a 48-game season ahead of them, it would be important for a team with playoff aspirations to get off to a good start.  Neither the Caps nor Ovechkin, in his new position, did so.  Washington lost their first four games and nine of their first 11 contests, going 2-8-1.  They staggered over the first two months of the abbreviated season, falling to 12-16-1 when they dropped a 2-1 decision to the Pittsburgh Penguins on March 19th.

The Caps were a mess.  They sat in fourth place in the Southeast Division, 14th in the Eastern Conference.  Ovechkin had just 12 goals in 29 games and was on a pace to finish with just 20 goals in the 48-game season.  Braden Holtby, now in his first season as the Caps number one netminder, was limping along with a record of 10-10-0, 2.92, .911.  Three shutouts against Southeast Division clubs (Florida, Carolina, and Winnipeg) saved Holtby’s record from being even worse.

That game against Pittsburgh might have been a turning point, even if it was a loss.  The Penguins took the ice at Consol Energy Center that night on a nine-game winning streak and were sailing along with the best record in the Eastern Conference (22-8-0).  They had held their previous five opponents to a total of just five goals.  They faced only 10 shorthanded situations in their last five home games, killing off nine of them.  Yet the Caps, who had not won a road game outside the Southeast Division in more than a month, got a power play goal from Ovechkin, 34 saves from Holtby, and played the Penguins even until Matt Niskanen scored the game-winner for Pittsburgh with eight minutes left.

It propelled the Caps to a superb finish to the regular season.  They went 15-2-2 over their last 19 games to win the Southeast Division and earn a three-seed for the playoffs.  They outscored their opponents by a 67-43 margin.  Their power play hummed along at 30.8 percent, while the penalty kill was a respectable 81.8 percent.  Holtby was impenetrable, going 13-2-1, 2.20, .931, with one shutout.  Ovechkin played his last 19 games with a scoring line of 20-12-32, plus-9 (a stunning 86-52-138, plus-39 pace per 82 games), good enough to win his third Maruice Richard Trophy as the league’s top goal scorer and his third Hart Trophy as the league’s most valuable player.  And, in an odd bit of voting by the Professional Hockey Writers' Association, Ovechkin was named a first team NHL all-star at right wing and a second team all-star at left wing.

One would have thought that finish was just what the Caps needed for what they experienced so rarely in the postseason – a deep run, perhaps to the Finals.  Their first round opponent would be the New York Rangers, a club that had a similar profile to that of the Caps.  Meandering around at 16-15-3 at the end of March, they went 10-3-1 over their last 14 games to finish second in the Atlantic Division and sixth in the Eastern Conference, taking the higher seed from the Ottawa Senators on the basis of having more regulation and overtime wins (the teams finished tied with 56 points).  Perhaps more ominously, goaltender Henrik Lundqvist played all the minutes in goal for the Rangers in April, going 10-3-1, 1.89, .934, with one shutout over those last 14 games.

The Rangers took two of three games against the Caps in the regular season, Washington’s only win coming in a Gimmick in the last meeting of the clubs in late March.  It would be the Rangers breaking on top in Game 1 as well, Carl Hagelin stepping out from behind the Caps’ net and snapping a shot off the skate of defenseman John Erskine and past Holtby’s right pad inside the far post.

The Caps could not solve Lundqvist in the first 20 minutes but had no problem with the winning formula in the second period.  With Arron Asham in the penalty box for the Rangers, a Mike Green drive from the top of the offensive zone was kicked out by Lundqvist.  His direction might have been better, the rebound ending up on the stick of Ovechkin who put it back from the bottom of the left wing circle to tie the game.

Late in the period the Caps got a pair of quick strikes.  The first came on a brilliant pass from defenseman Steve Oleksy from between his own hash marks though the center of the ice and onto the stick of Marcus Johansson at the Ranger blue line.  Johansson, behind the Ranger defense, broke in alone on Lundqvist and snapped the puck under his glove to give the Caps the lead.

Less than a minute later, the Caps worked the puck free in the corner to Lundqvist’s right.  Jason Chimera skated it up the wall, but when his path and passing lane was closed off by Brad Richards, he spun back and fired the puck at the net.  Perhaps distracted by Mathieu Perreault crossing in front, Lundqvist let the shot sneak through, and the Caps had a 3-1 lead after 40 minutes.  That left the game in Holtby's hands, and he was up to the task, turning away all 12 Ranger shots in the third period to give the Caps a Game 1 win.

If one was a fan of goaltenders playing a the top of their game, Game 2 was their kind of contest.  Holtby faced 24 shots in regulation and stopped all of them.  Lundqvist more than matched him, turning aside all 30 shots he faced in 60 minutes of regulation time.  In the extra session it came down to special teams.  Each side would suffer the same call.  First, Steve Oleksy was sent to the penalty box just 1:51 into overtime for delay-of-game when he shot the puck over the glass.  The Caps killed the two minutes without allowing a shot on goal.  If it did not result in inspiration, it might have provided resolve.  To that point the Caps did not have a shot on goal in the extra session.  Upon Oleksy’s exit from the penalty box, the Caps ramped up the pressure in the Ranger end.  A flurry of four shots on goal in less than a minute ended with Ranger defenseman Ryan McDonagh shooting the puck over the glass and heading to the penalty box to pay his own penance.

McDonagh was paroled early from his two minute sentence, though not in the manner he or the Rangers might have preferred.  Mike Green held the puck at the top of the offensive zone with two options, Alex Ovechkin on his left and Mike Ribeiro on his right.  He chose to slide the puck to Ribeiro along the right wing wall.  Ribeiro walked in to the top of the right wing faceoff circle and faked a shot.  It had the effect of pulling three Ranger defenders to that side of the ice and opening up clear space for a return pass to Green.  Ribeiro slid the puck back to the middle, and Green stepped into one, one-timing the puck low to the glove side of Lundqvist.  The glove was not quite quick enough, and the puck settled into the back of the net to give the Caps a 1-0 win and a two games to none advantage as the clubs headed to New York for Games 3 and 4.

With 17 wins in their last 21 games dating back to the regular season and a goalie who had stopped 59 of 60 shots in Games 1 and 2 of the series so far, one might have wondered what could go wrong for the Caps in Game 3 and beyond.  A Caps fan might wonder, what “would” go wrong.  It was not when Nicklas Backstrom scored barely four minutes into the contest, outworking three Rangers along the end wall to get into a position to slide the puck up to John Erskine, then get to the front of the net to redirect a John Carlson drive past Lundqvist.  It was Brian Boyle who started the Rangers on a sunnier path and the Caps down a dark road when he walked in from the right wing wall and snapped the puck over Holtby’s left shoulder to tie the game.  Teams that win playoff series get goals from those sorts of players (it was just his fourth goal in 25 career playoff games); teams that lose allow them to such players.

From there the teams started exchanging goals, but the Caps found themselves on the wrong side of the exchange, having to score to re-tie the game.  After Derick Brassard scored just 83 seconds into the second period, Mike Green tied the game late in the period when he took a pass from Mathieu Perreault, stepped up, and wristed a shot past Lundqvist.  Arron Asham – another of those sorts of players you cannot allow to score goals in series such as this – did just that less than three minutes into the third period.  Jay Beagle got that one back (just his second goal in 19 postseason games) when he redirected a Jack Hillen drive from the left point after a faceoff win in the Rangers’ end.

The Caps were on the wrong side of the exchange one last time.  Derek Stepan redirected a Rick Nash shot past Holtby with less than seven minutes left in regulation.  It was enough time for one last comeback, but the Caps managed just three shots on goal in the last 6:25, none in the last 1:54 in which they they had a power play and what amounted to a six-on-four advantage for the last 90 seconds of the game after they pulled Holtby.

Going into Game 4, a Caps fan might have been forgiven for thinking a 2-1 advantage in games was not really much, if any, of an advantage.  By the time Game 4 was over, the Caps didn’t even have that.  They played from behind the entire game, falling behind, 2-0, in the first 30 minutes thanks to goals from Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin.  To their credit, the Caps fought back to tie it, Mathieu Perreault scoring first at the 13:08 mark of the second period when he put back a loose puck after Henrick Lundqvist foiled a Joel Ward stuff attempt off a rush.  Troy Brouwer tied it in the last minute of the period when he cut across the Ranger zone between two defenders and backhanded the puck past Lundqvist’s blocker.

The Caps could not get that third goal, however, before the Rangers restored their two-goal lead.  Dan Girardi scored on a power play less than a minute into the third period.  Then, as HBO’s John Oliver might put it…this:

A goal by Karl Alzner 90 seconds later through a maze of bodies in front of Lundqvist got the Caps close once more, but Lundqvist turned away the last eight Capital shots over the last 12:29 after the Alzner goal, and the Rangers were even in the series.

With the teams holding serve on home ice through four games, the series moved back to Washington for Game 5.  If 18,000 people could do a simultaneous face-palm, they would have done it in the first minute.  The Rangers scored on the first shot attempt of the context, and they made it look easy.  Just after jumping on ice for his first shift of the game, Brian Boyle swept the puck behind the Capitals’ cage and out to Dan Girardi at the right point.  Girardi wasted no time in throwing the puck back into the Caps’ end, where it ended up on the stick of Derick Brassard behind the Caps’ goal line to the right of goalie Braden Holtby.  As Brassard collected the puck, the Caps’ defense lost Boyle, not an easy feat considering Boyle is 6’7”, 245 pounds.  But there he was, wide open at the top of the crease for a pass from Brassard that he slipped past Holtby, and the Rangers were up, 1-0, 53 seconds into the game.

That is the way things stayed until deep into the second period when Boyle took a penalty slashing Mike Ribeiro.  On the ensuing power play, the Rangers won the draw to the left of goalie Henrik Lundqvist, but neither defenseman – Ryan McDonagh or Girardi – could secure the puck.  Marcus Johansson stepped in to gather it up and fed Nicklas Backstrom on the right wing wall.  Off a set play, Backstrom sent the puck back down to Johansson, and Johansson one-timed a pass to the slot where Joel Ward snapped the puck past Lundqvist, and the game was tied.

Just as the Rangers failed to build on their early success, the Caps were unable to build on that second period goal.  The teams skated a scoreless third period and went to overtime for the second time in this building in the series.  It was hardly a deliberate, defensive sort of overtime.  The teams combined for 13 shots on goal in the first nine minutes of the overtime.  Then came a sequence filled with so many twists and turns and “what-ifs” that is seemed to take far longer than the ten seconds or so that elapsed. 

It started with the Caps’ Eric Fehr and the Rangers’ Anton Stralman racing to run down a puck sliding toward the Ranger goal line to the right of Lundqvist.  Eric Fehr used every bit of his 6’4” frame and long stick to reach past Stralman to swipe the puck back toward the middle of the ice.  Ribeiro split two Ranger defenders to grab the puck, but it was poked off his stick by Dominic Moore.  Troy Brouwer darted in to beat a Ranger to the loose puck and move it out to Karl Alzner at the left point.  Alzner slid it across to Mike Green, who took a shot from the right point that was blocked by Moore.  This time, a Ranger – Derick Brassard – got to the puck first and tried to flip it out of the defensive zone.  His attempt got as far as Green, who settled the puck and sent it to Alzner on the opposite side.  Alzner fired it past Brassard trying to block the shot but couldn’t get it past Stralman in front of the Ranger net.  The puck struck Stralman and skittered to the opposite side of the crease, where Mike Ribeiro was fending off Moore.  Ribeiro had position on Moore and an open net at which to shoot.  He did not miss, Lundqvist skated off and slammed his stick against the ledge at the players’ bench, and the Caps escaped with a 2-1 win to send the series back to New York for a Game 6. 

This time it was the Caps that would skate off in frustration.  The Caps fought through having to kill off five power plays while receiving none of their own (extending the Rangers’ power play advantage to 26-14 through six games), wasted a 26-save effort by Holtby (whose save percentage for the series was now .938), allowing only a second period goal by Derick Brassard on a shot from near the blue line that struck defenseman Steve Oleksy’s arm on the way through and deflected down and through Holtby.  Lundqvist did the rest, stopping all 27 shots he faced, including 12 in the third period to ensure that every Capital fan’s worst nightmare would be re-lived – a Game 7 at home.

If the playoffs have been unkind to the Capitals through their history, Games 7 at home have been a special circle of hell.  Starting with the Easter Epic in 1987, the Caps took the ice in this Game 7 with a record of 2-6 in Games 7 on home ice.  The one consolation was that the last time the Caps won such a game was in the 2009 Eastern Conference quarterfinals against the Rangers.

Whatever consolation that 2009 memory might have brought to the minds of Caps fans, it was extinguished in about 25 minutes.  That was how long it took for the competitive portion of the game to be settled.  It started once more with a foot soldier, not a star, opening the scoring.  Arron Asham got the Rangers off and running with his second goal of the series, taking a drop pass from Chris Kreider and snapping a very stoppable shot past Braden Holtby 13:19 into the first period.  Early in the second, the game, the series, and the season turned against the Caps in a space of 130 seconds.  Taylor Pyatt – another of the Rangers’ unsung brigade – scored his first goal of the series, assisted by Derek Dorsett (his first assist of the series) and former Capital Steve Eminger (yes, his first assist, too) just over three minutes into the period.  Then, Michael Del Zotto notched his first goal of the series when he fired a slap shot from the top of the left wing circle that Holtby misplayed through his pads to make it 3-0.

If there was any glimmer of a comeback, it was snuffed out 13 seconds into the third period when Ryan Callahan scored (tell us if you’ve heard this) his first goal of the series, pilfering the puck from John Erskine at the red line, skating in alone on Holtby, and lifting a backhand over Holtby’s right pad.  All that was left was for Mats Zuccarello to put the whipped cream on top of the Big Apple Pie with – you guessed it – his first goal of the series I the seventh minute of the period.  It was a sound 5-0 thrashing put on the Caps by the Rangers, wholly unexpected given the way the series unfolded through six games, but not unexpected in the experience of such games in Caps history. 

What made this postseason so disappointing?  Let’s start with that Game 7.  The five-goal loss was the first time the Caps lost a home playoff game by more than one goal since Game 1 of the 2011 conference quarterfinals against the Tampa Bay Lighting.  The Caps went four straight home losses having lost by one goal, three of them in overtime.  It was the largest margin of defeat on home ice in a playoff game since they lost to the Pittsburgh Penguins, 7-0, in Game 1 of the 2000 conference quarterfinals.

Then there was the inability to win on the road.  The Caps had the ninth-best road record in the league in the regular season (the Rangers were tied for 19th) yet could not find a way to win at Madison Square Garden. 

Then there were the stars.  Alex Ovechkin…one goal in seven games, that coming in Game 1.  Nicklas Backstrom…just one even strength point for the series.  Mike Ribeiro…one even strength point for the series (a game-winning overtime goal, so there was that). 

The Caps got ten points (three goals) from defensemen in the series.  Karl Alzner was the second-leading point-getter (1-1-2) and was the only defenseman to finish on the “plus” side of the plus-minus ledger (plus-3).

Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and Jason Chimera combined for two goals, the same number scored by both Brian Boyle and Arron Asham.

Martin Erat, for whom the Capitals traded one of their top prospects, played three games plus four minutes in Game 4.  His absence in Games 4-7 might have been missed just enough required some juggling among the forward lines.

In a way, the disappointment of that outcome is mitigated to a point by the fact that the Caps started the season in unsettled circumstances, perhaps more so than most other teams.  They weathered what could have been a disastrous start to the season, a start made more dangerous by the abbreviated schedule, and closed with a mad rush to reach the postseason.  Their best player accepted a different role – a new position – and scored goals at a pace that rivaled some of his best years before or since.

But in the end, it was another first round exit, the 14th time in 24 playoff appearances to that point the Caps were one-and-done.  They fought the Rangers to a draw through six games, then wilted in Game 7.  They came within a goal scored off their own player of perhaps forcing overtime in Game 6, and the Caps had won both of the overtime games in the series played to that point.  The Caps had their chances in that Game 6, despite the absence of any power plays – Ovechkin just after the Brassard goal, Ribeiro on a backhand from all alone in the left wing circle, Ovechkin on a one-timer from a Backstrom pass from below the goal line.  They were oh, so close to driving that spike into the Rangers’ season.  But then you already know the only things in which “close” counts.

Photo: Patrick McDermott/NHLI via Getty Images