Thursday, May 12, 2016

Washington Capitals: When All Is Said and Done, One Thing Remains

Capitals Nation has had more than a day to spill its bile over the Washington Capitals being eliminated from the postseason.  We are not quite at the “fix-it” stage of the offseason, but we are past (we hope) the knee-jerk “dump-fire-trade” reflex that overwhelms a lot of fans in the white-hot moments after a disappointing loss.  What we are left with for the time being is a lot of questions?  Questions like…

What just happened here?

The Caps lost a playoff series.  The persistent narrative fed by this loss is the history of “one and done” or “two and through” that haunts this franchise.  It is the 24th time in 26 postseason appearances that the Capitals have failed to advance past the second round of the playoffs.  But it would be an exercise in intellectual laziness to think that this is some systemic problem with the franchise since its inception.  Too many owners, managers, coaches, and players have been through these parts.  The ugly truth might be that every playoff loss is a snowflake – each unique in its form.  The only common attribute is, well, the loss.  And what happened?  The Caps lost. 

OK…so what makes this loss “unique?”

Goaltending, but not in a way you might think.  One sturdy lament from Caps fans over the years has been that it is always the other goalie who is the “hot goalie.”  From Kelly Hrudey turning away 72 of 75 shots in a Game 7 for the New York Islanders in 1987 to Jaroslav Halak stopping 131 of 134 shots in Games 5-7 of the Montreal Canadiens’ win over the Caps in 2010 to the New York Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist tormenting the Caps by stopping 92 of 94 shots he faced in the last three Games 7 he played against the Caps (all Ranger wins), there has been a “hot goalie” theme Caps fans played like a dirge.

Not so in this series.  There is a stunning fact about the goaltending matchup in the series against the Penguins.  If you compare the records of the two goaltenders in the games of this series, the Caps’ Braden Holtby and the Penguins’ Matt Murray, you get a 2.57 goals against average and a .923 save percentage for Holtby, and you get a 2.40 goals against average and a .926 save percentage for Murray.  But here is the thing.  The difference in their goals against averages is precisely the game-winning, series-clinching goal by Nick Bonino in Game 7.  If it had been Murray who allowed the goal in the overtime session on the same number of shots and minutes, his series goals against average to that point would have been 2.56, and his save percentage would have been .921.  You could argue, with some merit, that the goaltending being a wash was a victory for the Penguins, given the circumstances and the seasons the respective goalies had, but in terms of pure performance, the difference was as small as the last goal scored in the series.

If goaltending was a wash, what was the difference?

Not to put too fine a point on it, but “one goal,” at least in the first pass at the review.  It is tempting to think, especially since a fair number of the numbers guys before this series has the Penguins as a solid, if not overwhelming favorite, that there was a fair amount of space between these teams.  Not so.  Five of the six games ended in one-goal decisions, three of them in overtime.  In fact, in only three of the six games did either team take a multi-goal lead (Pittsburgh twice, both in wins, and the Caps once in what ended in a win).

Look at the high-end numbers.  The Penguins outscored the Caps, 16-15.  Overall, shot attempts favored the Pens, 407-399, and Pittsburgh had a similarly narrow advantage in shots on goal (209-202).

Surely, there has to be more of a difference than “one goal?”

Well, as a matter of fact, there is.  And for that, we turn to a verse from the Bible…

“Be not deceived; God is not mocked: 
for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.”

-- Galatians 6:7

What the Caps sowed in the second half of the season, they reaped in the second round of the playoffs in two respects.  It started with that infernal snow storm in late January that caused the postponement of two games.  In the 36 games after that, the Caps tied the Arizona Coyotes for the third-worst 5-on-5 goal differential in the first periods of games in the league.  Their minus-9 was better than only the Detroit Red Wings (minus-13) and the Colorado Avalanche. (minus-10).  Their minus-15 goal differential in all situations was worst in the league (the Edmonton Oilers were next at minus-12).  No team in the entire league in that span of the calendar scored fewer 5-on-5 goals in the first periods of games (11, tied with Detroit and the New Jersey Devils) or fewer goals overall (13, four fewer than the Oilers and Coyotes; numbers from 

Against the Penguins, the Caps were outscored in the first periods of games, 5-3, the Penguins scoring first period goals in each of the last four games of the series.  And what is worse, the Caps had the occasional problem of not knowing when to stop digging that hole of slow starts.  Twice in the series the Penguins scored the first three goals of a game.  Both times (Games 3 and 6), the Caps mounted furious third period comebacks (a reflection of their being perhaps the strongest third period club in the league in the regular season; no team was close to their plus-33 goal differential), but both times the comebacks were not enough, including in the series-clinching loss in overtime.

The other item of note was the reliance on special teams.  More precisely, how the power play became something of a mirage late in the season.  The Caps were at or near the top of the power play rankings for most of the season, but they slipped to fifth in the final tally.  Look again at their record after that snow storm in late January.  In the 36 games that followed, the Caps scored 15 power play goals.  Only six teams in the league scored fewer goals with the man-advantage.  In the postseason, that lack of production morphed into an odd lurching character.  They opened the first round series against the Philadelphia Flyers going 8-for-17, fueled largely by a 5-for-9 effort in Game 3 as a result of a team-wide meltdown by the Flyers.  After that game, though, the Caps went 1-for-22 in their next seven games, including 1-for-12 in the first four games of the series against the Penguins, three of those games ending in losses.  They recovered to go 4-for-11 in Games 5 and 6, but being shutout in Games 3 and 4 – both of which were one-goal losses, one in overtime – had an effect.

The power play hiccups put more pressure on the penalty killers to perform at a high-level, but this turned out to be a two-edged sword in the end.  For most of the postseason, the penalty killers were magnificent.  Through the first round and Games 1-4 of the second round, they were 36-for-37 (97.3 percent).  The trouble was, the Caps were that good killing penalties and still were just 5-5 overall in those ten games, falling behind the Penguins, three games to one, in the first four games of their series despite killing all 14 shorthanded situations they faced.  It left little margin for error for when the penalty killers were not at the top of their game.  And when Karl Alzner went down to injury in Game 6, and the Penguins scored two power play goals, that margin evaporated.

Could anything have helped to get the Caps past those problems?

One can over-think this question, but it really isn’t hard to see an answer.  Before we do address that, though, a detour.  In a season that spans six months and 100 or so regular season and playoff games, no player is immune to a slump.  You hope they don’t last long, and you pray they don’t come at the wrong time.  For the Caps, two players hit the daily double in this regard, and it hurt.

Evgeny Kuznetsov, in just his second full season in the NHL, finished ninth in the league in scoring in the regular season.  His 20 goals almost doubled his production from the previous season (11), and his 77 points more than doubled his 2014-2015 total (37).  After the postseason he had in 2015, when he had five goals in 14 games, one might have thought he would be the complementary piece in the postseason to Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom that the Caps have sorely lacked over the last decade.  It did not happen.  In 12 games, he had one goal and one assist, recording only the assist in his last nine games of the postseason.  He did not have an even-strength point in any of the 12 games.  No club’s second line center is going to have that level of production at this level of play and go deep.  It was one of the most perplexing developments in a Capitals postseason in a history full of them.

Then there was Andre Burakovsky.  His fate was less surprising than that of Kuznetsov, but no less important.  He made solid progress in his second season, building on 22-points in 53 games of the 2014-2015 campaign to finish 17-21-38 in 79 regular season games this year.  What he needed to do, and what the Caps needed from him, was improve on his results from last year’s postseason in which he was 2-1-3 in 11 games.  Unfortunately, he didn’t.  He scored the Caps’ first goal of their series against the Penguins, his first point of the postseason.  He would not record another.  But again, his performance was less surprising than Kuznetsov’s.  We need to keep in mind that he just turned 21 in February and in the original scheme of things regarding his development, this might have been originally penciled in as his rookie season before he made such an impression last year.

The struggles of the young forward duo is particularly important because of what the Penguins were able to get from their next line players.  Their trio of Phil Kessel, Nick Bonino, and Carl Hagelin combined for seven of the 16 goals scored by the Penguins in the series.  Being gobsmacked by the output of that group, coupled with the forgettable performance of the Caps young guard, was the difference in terms of performance around which this series revolved.

Was it a failure of management?

If by “management” you mean coaching, no.  And even if you want to entertain that notion, the term “failure” would be severe.  But head coach Barry Trotz and his assistants performed well in this series.  That’s not to say every move worked (like switching Backstrom and Kuznetsov to try and get the latter untracked), but it is hard to see a move he made and think, “well, there’s a boneheaded thing to do.”  Sometimes, things just don’t work as you planned or hoped.  Even the subtle dig at the league when Brooks Orpik was being evaluated for a possible suspension after his hit on Olli Maatta in Game 2 – “I’m not surprised based on who we’re playing and all that…Take it for whatever you want” – might have paid dividends elsewhere; the Caps had a 23-19 edge in power plays in the series.  You can pick over every move he and his assistants made over the stretch of a six-game series and conclude that this, that, or another was “wrong.”  But that is in retrospect.  As a body of work, coaching decisions do not rise to the level of having been a “problem.”

So what went right?

This starts to sound a bit like, “other than that, how did you like the play, Mrs. Lincoln?”  But more went right in this series for the Caps than folks might want to acknowledge.  Start with what they did to Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin.  In 305 total combined shifts spanning 234 minutes of ice time, the pair – generally thought of as the top pair of centers on one team in the NHL and perhaps among the top-five forwards – had one goal (Malkin).  Between them, they had one power play point (Crosby) and just four overall.  Let that sink in.  In terms of outcomes, it was perhaps the best sustained level of team defense on such prodigious offensive weapons in the history of Capitals playoff hockey.

Then there was the top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and T.J. Oshie.  The trio combined for seven of the Caps’ 15 goals in the series and accounted for more than 30 percent of the total shots on goal for the club in the series (62 of 202).  Oshie had five of the seven goals, Backstrom had four of the ten assists the threesome had.  Ovechkin led them with seven points overall (2-5-7).

There was John Carlson, too.  From the backline, Carlson figured in six of the Caps’ 15 goals in the series (two goals, four assists) and had a hand in three of the team’s five power play goals (one goal, two assists).  But it was not all unicorns and accordions as far as Carlson’s performance was concerned.  He was on ice for six of the 16 goals scored by the Penguins.

In the end…

In the last meeting with the press on Thursday, Nicklas Backstrom said that with respect to playoff disappointments, “it’s getting old.”  For Caps fans who might have followed this team since the 1980’s, when they made their first forays into the postseason, “old” is something of an understatement.  But in a curious way, this loss does feel different.  It isn’t any less disappointing than any of the other 25 postseasons without a Cup, but in this instance it is not obvious that the Caps lost to a superior team.  Quite the opposite, actually.  The Caps were an untimely departure (Karl Alzner, who finally could go no longer playing on a partially torn groin muscle) and an overtime goal away from forcing a Game 7 at home in this series.  Even with the ghastly history of Games 7 in this club’s history, one might have had the feeling that a Game 6 win, coming as it would have after spotting the Penguins a three-goal lead, would have given the Caps a strong wind at their back to sail past the Pens into the conference final.

That is the margin of winning and losing in the playoffs.  For the Caps, 26 times they reached the postseason, and 26 times they were always on the wrong side of that divide.  But perhaps more than in any postseason aftermath in club history, certainly since their 1998 run to the Stanley Cup final, we are left with what was left in Pandora’s Box after it was opened, and all the evils were loosed upon the world.


Photo: Patrick Smith/Getty Images