Sunday, April 16, 2017

Washington Capitals: The Cousins Sittin' On The Porch Looking Back at Game 2

The Washington Capitals and Easter.  Two things that have never co-existed easily.  There was the 1987 “Easter Epic,” the 3-2 Game 7, four-overtime loss to the New York Islanders that ended in the wee hours of Easter morning.  There was 2003, a 4-3 triple-overtime loss in a series clinching Game 6 against the Tampa Bay Lightning that at least ended with the sun still in the sky to light the way home for disappointed fans.

Last night, the Caps and Easter met once more, and this time the catalyst for overtime disappointment was the Toronto Maple Leafs, who took a 4-3 double-overtime win.  OK, the game ended officially at 11:36 on Saturday night, not Easter morning, but the Easter baskets had already been laid out.  And speaking of which, perhaps we can pry Cheerless away from his chocolate bunnies long enough to join Fearless and me to talk about this game.  Cheerless?  CHEERLESS?!?!?

Cheerless… mmph, whut?  I’m drowning my sorrows in milk chocolate.  OK, OK.  In the first game, the top line was absent.  Managed just a power play assist from T.J. Oshie.  Second line got a couple of goals from Justin Williams (one on a power play) and an assist from Evgeny Kuznetsov.  Last night, the top line came alive with goals from Alex Ovechkin (power play) and Nicklas Backstrom, with an assist from Oshie on Ovechkin’s goal.  Meanwhile, the third line of Lars Eller, Andre Burakovsky, and Brett Connolly… one assist in two games (Burakovsky).  This was what was missing last spring against Pittsburgh, who had that HBK line or MSG or POS line or whatever they called it that was the difference.  This year, the Caps were supposed to have put together a third, threatening line.  And for a lot of the regular season, it was.  Two games…bupkis. 

Fearless…  You would like to think that if the Caps get to three, fans would celebrate in glee.  The Caps were 46-2-1 in the regular season when they scored three or more goals.  They were a perfect 24-0-0 on home ice when scoring three or more goals.  In two games so far, all getting to “three” has meant is overtime, which can be a crap shoot.  OK, so they only got to “three” with that overtime win in Game 1. 


Fearless… You win the shot attempts, at 5-on-5, 91-76, and win the shots on goal, 40-37, you probably win more often than you lose.  But four total goals allowed?  At home?  Happened just four times in 41 home games all season.  The rarity of the event suggests it is not likely to happen again.

Cheerless… It’s not the four, it’s the three that got them to four, cuz.  It is not as if it was new to the Maple Leafs, not even on that sheet of ice.  Toronto scored four goals in the first 34 minutes of their January 3rd game at Verizon Center and finished with five in a 6-5 overtime loss to the Caps.  Those five goals, in the Maple Leafs’ only visit to Verizon Center before the playoffs, were the most goals scored by an opponent on that sheet of ice all season.  Doesn’t seem they’re all that intimidated by the Caps and their record at home.


Cheerless… That old problem sat back up and bit the boys in the bee-hind.  Too many penalties, too many shorthanded situations to skate off.  After allowing the Maple Leafs just one swig from the jug in Game 1, they let the Maple Leafs get their fill of five power plays in Game 2.  But again, here’s the thing.  The Caps were 8-0-0 in regular season games at home in which they allowed five or more power plays, including the 6-5 win over Toronto on January 3rd in which they allowed the Maple Leafs six power plays.  But even if the Leafs don’t convert, it robs the Caps of getting ice time for valuable performers.  Alex Ovechkin skated just 2:57 in the first period in which the Leafs had the benefit of three power plays.  They didn’t score on any of them, but taking Ovechkin off the ice for all or part of the five minutes or so the Leafs spent on power plays in that period helped keep the Caps from generating much early momentum.

Feerless…  The Caps’ own power play performance was impressive.  They had five power play chances of their own, and the eight they have in two games is tied for third-most in the league.  They were 2-for-5 last night, bringing their two-game total to three goals in eight chances, their 37.5 percent conversion rate being best in the league.  Last night the Caps got power play goals from both units and had power play points from six different players.


Feerless… Like Peerless is fond of saying, “it’s first to four, not first to one.”  A seven-game series sounds short, but there is a lot that gets packed into a seven-game series.  One of those things is injuries.  Toronto was already missing defenseman Nikita Zaitsev with what might be a concussion.  Last night they lost another defenseman, Roman Polak, with what looked like an ankle injury he sustained after catching a skate after being hit by Brooks Orpik.  The injury ends Polak’s season, and with Zaitsev’s status in this series uncertain, the Leafs, already with a young and untested in the playoffs blueline, got that much thinner.  One never wishes injury on another team, but it is what comes with a sport that features violent collisions and uncertain footing. 

Cheerless… A team can only play the team in front of it, injuries or not, and if the Caps are facing a thinner Toronto blue line, they have to do a better job of taking advantage of that situation.  Polak went out at the 13:55 mark of the second period.  Thirty seconds after that incident, Toronto scored, tying the game at 2-2.  The Caps managed just one goal in almost 58 minutes after Polak’s injury with the Leafs down to five defensemen.  Give the Maple Leafs credit for rallying to the situation.  But if the Leafs are missing both Zaitsev and Polak for some, most, or all of the rest of this series, the Caps have to do a better job of imposing their will on the defense the Leafs put on the ice.


Cheerless… Thirteen times in Caps history the team split Games 1 and 2 at home.  Nine times, they lost the series.  Now, franchise history spanning more than 30 years in which these series took place doesn’t mean a lot in the here and now, but since 2008, the Caps are 1-3 in such series, and that matters a bit more.  Players and fans will, no doubt, have different memories.  Fans might be inclined to remember every wrong turn, every bad break, every iffy call, and every stroke of bad luck the team suffered in putting together that record.  The players?  Huh?...what series?  What are you talking about?

Fearless… The Caps have four wins in those 13 series they split Games 1 and 2 at home.  Two of them came in the first three series on their way to the Stanley Cup finals in 1998.  Not all roads are smooth and pothole-free.  Keep your hands on the wheel, and keep the car in “drive.”  Just move forward.


Peerless… The Caps have never swept a best-of-seven series.  Ever.  Only three times have they dispatched a team in five games, none since 2011 when they beat the New York Rangers in that span of games.  The Caps don’t do short series.  This one offered the possibility of such a series, but the Maple Leafs are giving every indication of not knuckling under to the Caps’ depth and experience.  They seem disinclined to just thank the hockey gods for the experience of a postseason.  But the growing confidence of the Maple Leafs should be tempered with the realization that they will be challenged to shore up a defense depleted by injury.  It is an opportunity for the Caps, a challenge for the upstarts.  It is one of the subplots that might be the dominant story line heading into Game 3.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 2: Toronto Maple Leafs 4 - Washington Capitals 3 (2OT)

The Washington Capitals let one get away on Saturday night, losing a 4-3 double-overtime decision to the Toronto Maple Leafs in Game 2 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup. The win evens the series at a game apiece as the teams head north to Toronto to resume their quest on Monday night. 

The Caps opened the game with a stifling defense that held the Maple Leafs without a shot on goal for the first 10:58 of the game.  Despite the early smothering by the Caps’ defense, though, Toronto opened the scoring late in the first period.  Tyler Bozak fended off Matt Niskanen long enough to feed Jake Gardiner the puck at the left point.  Gardiner worked the puck to the middle, then curled through the right wing faceoff circle.  As he tried to maneuver between the hash marks, the puck slid off his stick, off Jay Beagle’s skate, and onto the blade of James van Riemsdyk.  He curled the puck to his forehand and ripped a shot off the post to goalie Braden Holtby’s left and in to make it 1-0 at the 17:34 mark.

After killing off a penalty that carried over from the first frame, the Caps scored on a power play of their own less than four minutes into the second period.  Out of a tangle below the Toronto goal line to the left of goalie Frederik Andersen, the puck made its way to T.J. Oshie, who fired it out to Alex Ovechkin in the left wing circle.  With all four Maple Leafs tilting to the right side of the ice, Ovechkin picked his spot and found it in the back of the Toronto net to make it 1-1, 3:47 into the period.

Washington took the lead mid-way through the period on another power play.  With the second power play unit on the ice, Andre Burakovsky skated the puck into the zone, worked around a Toronto defender, and tried to feed Evgeny Kuznetsov cutting to the net.  The puck sailed into the right wing corner and rebounded to Justin Williams.  From the far edge of the right wing circle, Williams backhanded the puck to John Carlson at the right point.  With room to step up, Carlson did just that and blasted a slap shot that beat Andersen on the near side to make it 2-1, Caps, at the 11:06 mark.

Three minutes later, the Leafs tied it back up when Toronto worked the puck below the Caps’ goal line, allowing Kasperi Kapanen to set up in front.  Matt Martin’s pass found him at the top of the crease, and with a couple of whacks at the puck, Kapanen slid it through Holtby 14:25 into the period to make it 2-2.

Then with Dmitry Orlov off on a tripping call, the Leafs took the lead in the dying seconds of the period.  Working the puck around the perimeter on the right side, Mitch Marner got it to Morgan Rielly at the right point.  Rielly carried the puck to the middle looking for a better shooting angle. He found one, threading a shot through a maze of bodies in front of Holtby to make it 3-2 with just 13.1 seconds left in the period.

Toronto nursed the one-goal lead for the first 11 minutes of the third period, but in the 12th minute the Caps applied steady, unremitting pressure in the Leafs’ zone and were rewarded for it after spending more than a minute in their end.  Dmitry Orlov flagged down an attempted clear by Gardiner off the glass at the left point.  He walked the puck back across the middle, and then he sent a shot to the Maple Leaf net that was muffled in front.  The puck caromed out to the right of Andersen, where Nicklas Backstrom pounced on it, firing the biscuit into the open side of the net behind Andersen to tie the game, 3-3, 12:39 into the period.

Neither team could find the tie-breaker in what remained of regulation time, and the teams went to overtime for the second time in two games.  But things did not end there.  After 20 minutes of scoreless extra time play, the teams went to a second overtime.  And there, in the game’s 92nd minute, the Leafs ended it.  John Carlson lost his stick trying to separate a Leaf from the puck, and the loose biscuit made it to Brian Boyle.  As he skated behind the Caps’ net, he fed it out the back side to Kasperi Kapanen, who had nothing but an open net at which to shoot, and he did not miss, giving the Maple Leafs the 4-3 win 11:53 into the second overtime and sending the series to Toronto tied at a game apiece.

Other stuff…

-- The loss broke a three-game winning streak in overtime on home ice dating back to May 2013, when the Caps beat the New York Rangers, 2-1, on a Mike Ribeiro goal.

-- The 51 shots on goal for the Caps was the fourth-highest number they ever recorded on home ice in a postseason game.  All four were losses.  The others were a 61-shot effort in a 2-1 three-overtime series clinching loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 20, 2003; a 63-shot game in a four-overtime Game 4 3-2 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 24, 1996, and the mother of all frustration, a 75-shot performance in a four-overtime Game 7 3-2 loss to the New York Islanders on April 18, 1987.

-- Offensive zone faceoffs were a problem all night for the Caps.  They won just 18 of 43 draws in the Toronto end (41.9 percent).  They were even worse in the defensive end, percentage-wise (33.3 percent, winning 10 of 30 draws).  The plus-13 differential between offensive and defensive zone draws counts as an opportunity wasted, especially given that the Leafs were playing short a defenseman after the injury to Roman Polak in the second period, from which he did not return.

-- Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner each skated more than 40 minutes for Toronto, 40:12 and 40:42, respectively.

-- In a game that lasted almost 92 minutes, Alex Ovechkin skated just 24:35, sixth among forwards, both in total and in even strength ice time.

-- Only’s…Karl Alzner and Jay Beagle were the only Capitals without a shot on goal.  Beagle did not record a shot attempt (he was also an uncharacteristic 9-for-25/36.0 percent on draws).  Brett Connolly was the only Cap not credited with a hit. 

-- Matt Niskanen had ten credited hits to lead the team.  He had seven shot attempts, tying him with Dmitry Orlov and Kevin Shattenkirk for second-most on the club among defensemen.  John Carlson had nine shots on goal to lead the defensemen.

-- Alex Ovechkin’s goal was his 42nd career postseason goal, tying him for fifth place among all players since 2007-2008, when he appeared in his first postseason.

-- It took him a second overtime to do it, but this was the first time Braden Holtby surrendered four goals on home ice in a playoff game since he allowed four goals on 28 shots in a 4-3 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 6 of the 2015 Eastern Conference semifinals.

-- T.J. Oshie had a bit of a rough game.  He only managed to put one of his eight shot attempts on goal and lost six of seven draws.  He did have an assist, though, and five credited hits to go along with it.

In the end…

The Caps have let a lot of opportunities walk up to the door and knock over the years, without ever getting up to answer the door.  As opportunities go, this was not the worst of them that they let get away, but it was significant.  The best home team in the league, playing a young team down a veteran defenseman mid-way through regulation, let the Leafs off the hook.  There were a lot of near misses and almosts, but near misses and almosts litter the Caps’ playoff landscape like confetti after a ticker tape parade.  We’ll find out soon enough if this team really is different from their predecessors, or if they are just a different model of the same make of car.  In that sense, going on the road is not really a bad thing, home-ice advantage in the NHL being probably the least reliable home advantage of the major team sports.  But the Caps can’t let the Maple Leafs skate with the sort of confidence a game like this can provide.  They have to take it from the Leafs and stand on their throats, characteristics that would be different from a lot of their predecessors at this time of year.