Sunday, August 16, 2015

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

In Part V of our look at the playoffs in the Rock the Red era of the Washington Capitals, we take a look at a hard working crew who overcame much, if not quite enough to make a deep run into the postseason.  Not so much disappointing as equal parts frustrating and promising.

3.  2012: “Great job, kid….”

In 2010 the Washington Capitals could not parlay a Presidents Trophy won in the regular season into so much as a single playoff series win.  In 2011 they changed their game, and what it bought them in the postseason was one series win before an disconcerting sweep in the second round at the hands of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

In the 2011-2012 season it all came apart, or so one might have felt in the 2011 portion of the season.  Oh sure, the Caps ran off to a 7-0-0 record in the first two weeks of the season.  However, things deteriorated.  Quickly.  On a trip to the Canadian west after winning their first seven games they managed only one goal against their old nemesis in goal, Nikolai Khabibulin, in a 2-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers despite outshooting the Oilers, 35-19.  Then the Caps moved on to Vancouver, fell behind, tied the game, fell behind again, tied the game again, then allowed three unanswered third period goals in a 7-4 loss to the Canucks.

Losing in a low-scoring game and losing in a high-scoring game, the Caps returned home to face the Anaheim Ducks to open November.  Washington fell deeper into a hole, allowing the Ducks to score three goals on just nine shots in 29 minutes to take a 3-0 lead.  That made it 11 goals allowed in the Caps’ last 116 minutes of hockey.  The Caps slowly whittled away at the deficit against the Ducks, though, scoring goals three minutes apart late in the second period to make it a 3-2 game after 40 minutes.  After spotting the Ducks the first third period goal to make it 4-2, they got one back mid-way through the period to set up a wild, if strange, finish. 

With a faceoff coming in the Anaheim zone with 1:02 left to play, head coach Bruce Boudreau took his time out, pulled goalie Tomas Vokoun, and sent out six skaters: Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Liach, Joel Ward, Jason Chimera, Dennis Wideman, and John Carlson.  Conspicous by his absence was Alex Ovechkin, whose last shift ended with 3:11 to play in regulation.  Ovechkin was not happy, and it was captured on national television:

It worked out for the Caps, though.  Backstrom put back a rebound with 42 seconds left to send the game to overtime, then he won it just over two minutes into overtime.  If not a Pyrrhic victory, it was a win with a cost nevertheless.  The Caps beat the Carolina Hurricanes in their next game, but then the wheels spun off the wagon.  They went 3-7-1 in their next 11 games, outscored by a 44-25 margin, going 4-for-45 on their power play (8.9 percent) and 33-for-40 killing penalties (82.5 percent). 

It came crashing down with losses to the New York Rangers, 6-3, and the Buffalo Sabres, 5-1, as November was winding down.  On Monday, November 28th, the ax fell on Boudreau, who was relieved of his duties in favor of former Capitals captain Dale Hunter, who was co-owner and head coach of the London Knights of the Ontario Hockey League. 

If the Capitals “were no longer responding to Bruce,” as Washington general manager George McPhee put it, perhaps they would respond to a coach who, as a player, was not shy about engaging in confrontation.  As it was, things did not change much at first.  The Caps lost three of their first four games under Hunter, an overtime win over the Ottawa Senators after giving up a third period lead being the only thing between the Caps and a four-game losing streak to open Hunter’s NHL coaching career.

At 13-12-1 on December 5th, the Caps were at their low point, record wise, for the season to date.  They were seven points behind the Florida Panthers for the Southeast Division lead and in ninth place in the Eastern Conference, two points behind the Senators.  The Caps started their slow climb back up the standings with a nice run to end December and start the new year, going 8-3-1.  A pair of 5-2 losses on a west coast trip to San Jose and Los Angeles barely slowed them down.  They went 7-4-2 after their west coast trip before one more stretch of adversity had to be confronted.

It actually started with a win.  The Caps defeated the Calgary Flames, 3-1, in the first game of the new year.  However, it came at a heavy price.  In the third period of that game, the Flames’ Rene Bourque elbowed Nicklas Backstrom in the head at center ice, Backstrom suffering a concussion that would cost him and the Caps 40 games. 

Starting with the first game after Backstrom’s injury, a 3-2 Gimmick loss to the Winnipeg Jets (lost after blowing a two-goal third period lead), the Caps went 4-7-2 to slip once more out of the top-eight in the Eastern Conference.  Then, on March 8th, Alex Ovechkin scored an overtime goal to lead the Caps to a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning.  It might have been the product of some simple wisdom from Hunter, who told the club at the second intermission to “just quit trying to use your skill, and use your will a little bit more." 

Whether you think small inspirational message like that have an effect, the overtime win started the Caps on 10-4-2 run to close the regular season.  They did not win the division, finishing two points behind the Florida Panthers, but they did sneak into a wild card berth, ending up in seventh place in the conference by virtue of a tie-breaker with the Ottawa Senators.

What the seventh-place finish earned the Caps was a first-round playoff date with the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Boston Bruins.  Not that Caps showed much fear in dealing with the champs in the regular season.  They beat Boston in three of four games, all four of the games played under Dale Hunter.  There would be an important difference for the Caps in the postseason, though.  In the Caps’ last meeting against the Bruins in the regular season, on March 29th, goaltender Tomas Vokoun suffered what was then called a “lower body injury,” aggravating a groin strain that caused him to miss 14 of the team’s previous 18 games.  Then, in the penultimate game of the regular season against the Florida Panthers, Michal Neuvirth suffered a knee injury in the second period.  Both goalies were done for the season, leaving the Caps’ fortunes in the untested hands of Braden Holtby.  In parts of two seasons, Holtby appeared in 21 regular season games (14-4-3, 2.02, .929,  three shutouts) and no postseason games.  He had not faced the Bruins since making his NHL debut in November 2010, playing the last ten minutes of a 5-3 win over the Bruins and getting credit for the win.

Neither the regular season results nor Holtby’s brief success against the Bruins were of any help to the Capitals in Game 1 of the series, although there was the glimmer of what might have been an emerging star.  Washington managed only 16 shots on  defending Vezina Trophy winning goalie Tim Thomas in regulation time.  Thomas stopped all of them.  At the other end, Holtby got more work – 29 shots faced in regulation – and he stopped all that he faced, too.  Both teams recorded a shot on goal in overtime, but it was Chris Kelly’s slap shot from the top of the left wing circle just 78 seconds into the extra period that gave the Bruins the win.

It would take extra time to settle Game 2 as well.  And once more, it was the goalies who starred.  Troy Brouwer put the Caps ahead 18 minutes into the second period for Washington’s first goal of the series.  Benoit Pouliot tied the game 12 minutes into the third period.  That would be as much scoring as the teams could muster despite 59 total shots on goal in regulation (Holtby was 29 for 30 in saves, Thomas was 28 for 29).

The clubs played a scoreless 20 minutes of overtime, sending the game to a second extra period.   Less than three minutes into the frame, from about six feet from where Chris Kelly ended Game 1, Nicklas Backstrom ended Game 2, sending a wrist shot under the right arm of Tim Thomas and the series back to Washington tied at a game apiece.

Compared to Games 1 and 2, Game 3 was an offensive explosion.  Where there were just two goals scored in 120 minutes of regulation time in Boston, the Caps needed just 16 minutes to get one – and Alexander Semin power play goal – and the Bruins needed just 35 seconds of the second period to get one of their own, from Rich Peverley.

When Alex Ovechkin split the defense and snapped a shot past Thomas just 13 seconds after the Peverley goal, one might have thought that it would be a happy day for Caps fans at Verizon Center.  It wasn’t.  Boston beat Holtby for the game’s next two goals to take a 3-2 lead.  Brooks Laich scored with six minutes left to tie the game once more, but with less than two minutes left the Caps and Holtby suffered one of those plays that seem unique to hockey.   Patrice Bergeron fed Zdeno Chara for a one-timer that was redirected on its way to the net by Caps defenseman Roman Hamrlik.  It was just enough for the puck to sneak past Holtby’s glove for what would be the game-winning goal in the Bruins’ 4-3 win.

Game 4 might have been an announcement that Braden Holtby was going to be a big-time goaltender.  With Nicklas Backstrom suspended for taking a match penalty against Rich Peverley at the end of Game 3, the Caps were without one of their most important offensive players.  It put more pressure on Holtby to improve on his Game 3 effort.  He almost singlehandedly kept the Caps in the game in the first period, allowing only one goal – by Peverley – on 14 shots faced.  The Bruins held the Caps to three shots in that first frame, although one by Marcus Johansson got through in the game’s second minute. 

Holtby’s effort allowed the Caps to get their feet under them, and it paid off late in the second period.  With Patrice Bergeron off on a hooking penalty, Alexander Semin circled from the left wing wall into the faceoff circle, double pumped, then sent a wrist shot over Thomas’ glove on the far side to put the Caps up, 2-1.  That put the game in Holtby’s hands in the third period, and he was up to the task.  Despite outshooting the Caps, 13-3, in the period and getting their only power play of the game, the Bruins could not find their way to a second goal.  Holtby stopped 44 of 45 shots in all (the Caps had 21 shots) to enable the Caps to avoid having to head back to Boston facing elimination.

Holtby was not as sharp in Game 5 as he was in Game 4, but then again, neither was Thomas.  A scoreless first period gave way to a second period in which the Caps took a 2-0 lead on goals barely three minutes apart.  Semin recorded his third of the series, and Jay Beagle got his first in an example of sustained effort.  He battled Brian Ralston to a draw for the puck, Ralston taking Beagle down at the right wing wall in the Bruins’ end.  It was sufficient to allow Matt Hendricks to bat the puck off the side wall and out where Jason Chimera took it in stride.  Chimera skated down the left wing and fired a shot that was kicked out by Thomas.  David Krejci tried to clear the puck, but Beagle, trailing the play, stopped the puck at the blue line.  He stepped up into the left wing faceoff circle and snapped a shot that was deadened in front, sneaking though Thomas for a 2-0 Caps lead.

Boston tied the game on goals by Dennis Seidenberg and Brad Marchand just 28 seconds apart late in the second period.  After the Caps took the lead early in the third period, Johnny Boychuk scored a power play goal to tie the game, 3-3.  With 2:50 left, Benoit Pouliot took a slashing penalty against Nicklas Backstrom, and the Caps made good on their opportunity.  It was a simple enough play.  John Carlson collected the puck behind the Caps’ net and started up ice.  From his own blue line he fed the puck up to Troy Brouwer closing on the Bruin blue line.  Brouwer had the advantage of momentum as defenseman Andrew Ference tried to close the gap.  Ference was late getting over, allowing Brouwer to fire a shot from the right wing faceoff circle that beat Thomas for the winning margin in the Caps’ 4-3 win.

With a chance to clinch the series at home, the Caps spent the entire contest a step behind.  The Bruins took the lead early on a goal by Rich Peverley six minutes into the game.  The Caps tied it on a Mike Green goal less than four minutes later, establishing a pattern.  The Bruins would score, the Caps would tie the game.  Washington could never get that lead goal, though, and the teams went to overtime for the third time in the series.  The Caps got sloppy early in the overtime, and it cost them.  Nicklas Backstrom sent a pass from inside his own blue line up the middle, but it lacked pace.  Krejci knocked it down in the neutral zone and fed the puck over to Milan Lucic heading into the offensive zone on the left side.  Lucic slid the puck across to Tyler Seguin skating down the middle.  Getting behind the Caps’ defense, Seguin deked Holtby to the ice and slid a forehad past Holtby’s left pad to send the series back to Boston one last time.

Six games, all one-goal decisions, three of them settled in overtime, two of them in Boston.  Did anyone think Game 7 would be different?   It certainly was not as the game unfolded.  Washington scored the first goal in the 12th minute when Matt Hendricks redirected a John Carlson drive past Thomas.  Boston evened the score in the 15th minute of the second period when a Johnny Boychuk drive from the right wing circle snuck under Holtby’s arm and crawled toward the open net.  Seguin fought to get between Karl Alzner and John Carlson to poke the puck into the net.  It would be all the scoring for regulation time.

Boston got the overtime’s first shot on goal 36 seconds into the extra period.  It would be their last of their season.  As the clock approached the three-minute mark, Boston tried to get a line change with Benoit Pouliot shooting the puck into the Washington end from in front of the players bench.  The puck made it only just inside the blue line where it struck Mike Knuble’s shin pads.  With the players coming on and going off for Boston, Knuble headed up ice ahead of the pack.  Pouliot desperately tried to get back into the play and interrupt Knuble’s progress, but what that did was leave a skating lane for Joel Ward to cross behind Knuble.  When Knuble’s backhand attempt was stifled, Ward was in perfect position to slide the puck through the pile of players and past Thomas for the game-winning, series clinching goal:

The Caps moved on to face the New York Rangers in the second round, the third time in four postseasons the teams would meet.  If there was a hangover from winning the Boston series in dramatic fashion, it was not apparent in the first half of Game 1.  In fact, it resembled the Boston series in that neither team could score.  It would be the Rangers drawing first blood, though, courtesy of Artem Anisimov in the 13th minute of the first period.  Washington tied the game with 3.5 seconds left in the period when Jason Chimera converted a pass from Brooks Laich through goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s pads, his third goal in six career playoff games against the Rangers.  That would be all the Caps would get, though, as the Rangers got goals 90 seconds apart mid-way through the third period to take Game 1.

In Game 2 it was the Caps’ turn for some third period magic.  Washington wasted a two-goal lead provided by first-period goals from Mike Knuble and Chimera, allowing the Rangers to tie the game in the third period on a power play goal by Michael Del Zotto.  The Rangers returned the favor, though, with Brad Richards taking a holding penalty at the 12:29 mark to put the Caps on a power play.  On the ensuing faceoff to the right of Lundqvist, Nicklas Backstrom won the draw cleanly to Alex Ovechkin at the left point.  Ovechkin circled to the middle of the ice and fired a wrist shot that beat Lundqvist to the glove side just four seconds into the power play for the game-winnnig goal.

The teams took the series to Washington and played a game all too familiar to Caps fans.  After a scoreless first period the teams exchanged goals four and a half minutes apart in the second period.  John Carlson’s goal at 11:10 to tie the game would be all the scoring in the last 29 minutes of regulation…and a first overtime…and a second overtime.  For the Rangers, a third overtime was uncharted territory.  It was their first such playoff game since defeating the Chicago Blackhawks in triple-overtime in Game 6 of the 1971 Stanley Cup semifinals (the Rangers lost Game 7).  For the Caps it was their second multiple overtime game of the 2012 postseason and 12th multiple overtime game in club history.

The problem for the Caps was that they were 4-7 in the 11 multiple overtime games played in franchise history.  That record went to 4-8 in the blink of an eye.  In the 15th minute of the third overtime defenseman Dan Girardi stopped the puck along the right wing wall and fed it down to Brad Richards behind the Caps’ net.  Richards wasted no time sliding the puck out to Marian Gaborik in the low slot for a one-timer that snuck between Holtby’s pads to give the Rangers a 2-1 win and a 2-1 lead in games.

The Caps did not need extra time to tie the series in Game 4, but they did need some help from the Rangers in the third period.  It came in the form of a Carl Hagelin slashing penalty.  Then, the Rangers could not clear the puck out of their end on the ensuing power play.  Dennis Wideman easily stopped a weak clearing attempt and sent the puck across the rink to Mike Green at the right point.  Green took a couple of strides forward and leaned into a shot that beat Lundqvist cleanly to give the Caps a 3-2 win as the teams headed back to New York tied in the series.

Overtime was once more unkind to the Caps.  The teams exchanged a pair of goals early – New York’s Antron Stralman in the first period and Brooks Laich in the second period.  They then exchanged a pair of goals in the third period – John Carlson early and Brad Richards late.  The Caps had a chance between the two goals to get an insurance goal on a Nicklas Backstrom breakaway 13 minutes into the period, but he was foiled by Lundqvist’s left pad.  While that was disappointing, it would be the circumstances of the Richards goal would haunt the Caps for the rest of the series.

With the Caps nursing the one-goal lead in the last minute, Joel Ward was whistled for a double-minor penalty for high-sticking Hagelin.  The Capitals almost escaped.  With Lundqvist pulled for an extra skater, the Rangers had a 6-4 advantage.  It allowed them to get numbers in front of the Capitals’ net.  There were enough blue shirts at the top of the crease to keep the puck alive before Holtby could get a glove on it.  The puck squirted out to the opposite post where Brad Richards whacked it in, just 6.5 seconds left in regulation.  Then, just 95 seconds into the overtime, after the Rangers won a faceoff in the Caps’ end, Marc Staal sent a shot through a maze of bodies in front of Holtby and into the back of the net to give the Rangers a 3-2 win and a 3-2 lead in games heading back to Washington.

With goals at a premium and power plays not plentiful (16 for Washington through five games), the Caps were going to have to dig deep to find success in both in Game 6.  They did, less than 90 seconds into the contest.  Anton Stralman took a tripping penalty just 1:13 into the game to put the Caps on a power play.  The Caps moved the puck around the perimeter smartly to start their power play with Alex Ovechkin camped in the slot.  He was in perfect position to take a pass from Nicklas Backstrom and whip a shot past Lundqvist to open the scoring.  Given that the team scoring the first goal won each of the first five games, that goal could be considered important.

When Jason Chimera scored his fourth of the playoffs and third of the series mid-way through the second period it gave the Caps their first two-goal lead since the first period of Game 2.  They would need that goal as Marian Gaborik threw a scare into the Caps in the last minute, rattling a shot off the far pipe with 50.5 seconds left to halve the Caps lead.  The Caps weathered those last 50 and a half seconds without allowing the Rangers a shot attempt, and the teams were even heading to Game 7 in New York.

An extra day off between Game 6 and 7 only added to the suspense.  The suspense turned to dread for Caps fans less than two minutes into the contest.  The Rangers broke out of their own end cleanly, and a long lead pass from Michael Del Zotto from his own end was chipped into the Caps end and chased down behind the net by Carl Hagelin.  Hagelin circled out from behind the net and found Brad Richards for a one-timer from just inside the top of the left wing circle that beat Holtby on the long side to give the Rangers the first goal in a series dominated by teams scoring first.

After a scoreless second period, the Rangers added to their lead just after the ten-minute mark of the third period when Del Zotto recorded a goal of his own.  Just 38 seconds later the Caps got that one back on a goal by Roman Hamrlik.  His first of the postseason came as the late trailer on a Capitals rush, sneaking into the high slot to snap a shot past Lundqvist. 

It would be the Caps last goal of the season.  The Caps were awarded a power play less than a minute after the Hamrlik goal, but lost that advantage without recording a shot on goal when Nicklas Backstrom took a slashing penalty 1:38 into the power play.  Washington managed only two shots in the last seven minutes, one by Matt Hendricks and a 60-foot drive from Alexander Semin in the last half minute.  The Rangers ensured that for the seventh time in seven games, the team opening the scoring would go off as victors.

In the end, it was another “two and through” for the Caps, but it seemed very different from the finish to the 2011 postseason.  It might be summed up by what Tim Thomas said to Braden Holtby in the handshake line at the end of the opening round series against Boston: “great job, kid.”  While Joel Ward’s goal was the takeaway highlight of this postseason, it was Holtby who came though it as an emerging star.  He finished third in the postseason among qualifying goaltenders in goals against average (1.95), third in save percentage (.935).  His two series were copies of one another, a 2.00 goals against in the opening round series against Boston and a 1.90 goals against in the second round series against the Rangers.  His save percentage of .940 in the opening round series against the Bruins dropped to .929 in the Ranger series, but even that lower save percentage would have been sixth best among qualifying goalies in the postseason.

In a more general sense, this postseason was something of a precursor to what would be characterized in a season down the road as a “heavy” game played by the Caps.  When Bruce Boudreau was replaced by Dale Hunter (who departed at the end of the 2012 postseason to return to the London Knights), any remnants of the freewheeling style employed by the Caps from 2008-2010 were gone.  The Caps played games with a rougher edge, even if that meant playing a lot of “coin toss” hockey, games decided by a goal in low scoring affairs.

Unlike the hard to explain collapse in the second round of the 2011 playoffs to the Tampa Bay Lightning, one had the feeling the Caps did more right than wrong overall in the 2012 postseason.  And, given the turmoil that surrounded the early part of the season, the unknowns that came with changing coaches in mid-season, and the changes in style on the ice that Dale Hunter brought, it was not the disappointing postseason that characterized so many that came before.  The Caps might have gotten as much as they could have out of this season under the circumstances and might have planted the seeds for more success later, especially with a goaltender who emerged as a budding star.

Photo: Bruce Bennett/Getty Images North America