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.