Friday, June 08, 2018

Washington Capitals: Luck is What You Make of It

The difference between winning and losing, success and failure, joy and despair might be thinner in hockey than in any other team sport.  The Washington Capitals and their fans could testify to the veracity of that statement.  For years – decades – Capitals Nation always seemed to be on the dark side of that margin.  It could hardly be helped if many in the Nation asked themselves over the years in frustration, “what if?”  As in...
  • “What if that puck didn’t graze the shaft of Rod Langway’s stick in the fourth overtime against the Islanders on Easter morning in 1987, changing its direction by an inch or two to elude Bob Mason?”
  • “What if Esa Tikkanen scores that goal after he deked Detroit goalie Chris Osgood to the ice in the third period of Game 2 in the Stanley Cup final with the Caps nursing a one-goal lead?”
  • “What if Sergei Gonchar doesn’t lose the puck on some bad ice at his own blue line in overtime of Game 6 against Pittsburgh in 2001?”
  • “What if Jason Doig waits a second longer to jump onto the ice in the third overtime of Game 6 against Tampa Bay on Easter in 2003?”
  • “What if the ref put his whistle in his pocket in overtime against the Flyers in 2008 instead of calling Tom Poti for an iffy tripping penalty, or on the ensuing power play Cristobal Huet doesn't look in the wrong direction in search of a loose puck after making the initial save?”
  • “What if Alex Ovechkin scores on a breakaway early in Game 7 against the Penguins in 2009?”
  • “What if one puck – one stinking puck – hit a body or a stick or a skate on the way to Jaroslav Halak in any of the last three games against Montreal in 2010?”
  • “What if the Caps won a defensive zone faceoff in overtime against the Rangers in Game 7 in 2015?”
  • “What if the Caps won one of the two overtime losses to Pittsburgh over the last three games of their 2016 series?”

It seemed that whenever there was a critical, game-changing, series-turning moment, it always changed or turned in the opponent’s favor.  But oh, how that script was flipped in 2018…

After losing Games 1 and 2 on home ice, both in overtime, to the Columbus Blue Jackets, the Caps could have gone down, 0-3, when they went to a second overtime in Game 3, but this happened…

How many times did that puck change direction after Brett Connolly took the original shot?

And it only started there...
  • What if Nicklas Backstrom doesn’t get his stick on a Dmitry Orlov shot in overtime of Game 5 of that series to give the Caps a 3-2 lead heading back to Columbus instead of the Blue Jackets taking a lead back home with a chance to eliminate the Caps?
  • What if Alex Ovechkin swings and misses instead of batting the puck out of mid-air on a rebound with 67 seconds left in regulation in Game 3 against the Penguins in Pittsburgh to give the Caps a 2-1 lead in games and regain home-ice advantage that they lost when they split their first two games at home?
  • What if Tom Kuhnhackl’s shot off the post just before the three-minute mark of overtime goes in instead of caroming out to send the series against the Penguins back to Washington for a seventh game instead of Evgeny Kuznetsov scoring the game/series winner two minutes later?
  • What if Alex Tuch gets a couple more inches of air under his shot from point blank range with two minutes left in regulation in Game 2 and the Caps hanging on by their fingernails to a one-goal lead and already down a game in the series?
  • What if, when he is tripped by Colin Miller while taking a shot, Devante Smith-Pelly is knocked off balance enough to whiff on his shot instead of scoring the game-tying goal ten minutes into the third period of Game 6 against Vegas?
  • What if, less than three minutes later in the same game, the puck does not sneak between the legs of Marc-Andre Fleury just enough off a shot from Brett Connolly for Lars Eller to swoop in and bat home what would be the game-winning/series-clinching/Cup-winning/grief-ending goal?

The poet John Milton once said, “luck is the residue of design.”  The Capitals put themselves in a position to win games, clinch series, and capture the Stanley Cup by virtue of clever design and artful execution of a game plan.  But hockey being what it is, a certain randomness – luck, if you will – will present itself from time to time.  And after decades of seeing those lucky bounces swing the opponent’s way, the Caps put themselves in a position to reap the benefits of luck shining on their side of the ice.  They earned their good fortune.

Photo: Getty Images

Stanley Cup Final -- Game 5: Washington Capitals 4 - Vegas Golden Knights 3

On October 9, 1974, the Washington Capitals took the ice for the first time, dropping a 6-3 decision to the New York Rangers.  It took 3,700 more regular season and playoff games, but 15,947 days later, the Washington Capitals may now add “Stanley Cup Champion” to their history.

The Capitals vanquished the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 5 of their Stanley Cup final series with a thrilling come-from-behind 4-3 win at T-Mobile Arena, ending the fifth-longest Stanley Cup drought in the NHL.  With the win, the Caps become the 19th franchise in the current NHL to hoist the Cup.

First Period

The period did not lack for intensity, but it was the sort of intensity one sees in the feeling-out early rounds of a prize fight at Caesar’s Palace.  The Caps enjoyed the period’s only power play, but could not convert.  Alex Ovechkin had a chance off a feed from John Carlson, but his one-timer from the left wing circle clanged off the far post past goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, and out.  It would be perhaps the best chance either team had in the opening 20 minutes.

Odd numbers… The Caps had a 15-12 advantage in shot attempts and a 9-7 edge in shots on goal.  Ovechkin led with four shot attempts, while three Caps had three apiece (Nicklas Backstrom, John Carlson, and Christian Djoos).  Vegas had a whopping 18-10 edge in credited hits.  Dmitry Orlov led all players with 9:13 in ice time in the period.

Second Period

The Caps got a gift early, Shea Theodore taking a tripping penalty to put Washington on their second power play.  The Caps did not convert, and it looked as if it might come back to haunt them when Vegas was awarded a power play a minute after the Caps’ man advantage expired.  Vegas could not convert on their opportunity, leaving it to an even strength situation in which the game’s first goal would be scored.

Off a Deryk Engelland missed shot, the Caps quickly transitioned to offense, Tom Wilson feeding Jakub Vrana on a breakaway.  Vrana charged in and snapped a shot high over Fleury’s glove and into the top corner to make it a 1-0 game 6:24 into the period.

Vegas tied the game three minutes later when Jonathan Marchessault redirected an attempt by Reilly Smith past Braden Holtby, and the Golden Knights were back in it 9:40 into the period.

The tie lasted 34 seconds.  With Brayden McNabb in the box on a tripping call, Nicklas Backstrom had the puck in the dispatch office along the right wall.  Picking a lane that perhaps only he could see, he threaded a pass all the way through to Alex Ovechkin in the left wing circle.  Ovechkin’s one-timer flew behind Fleury into the back of the net, and the Caps had a 2-1 lead at the 10:14 mark.

Vegas crawled back into it a second time, though.  David Perron redirected a Tomas Tatar effort into the net as he was tumbling into it himself.  The Caps challenged the goal, but the on-ice call stood, apparently a case of Christian Djoos being the force behind Perron’s tumble.  The game was tied, 2-2, 12:56 into the frame.

Reilly Smith gave Vegas their first lead of the game late in the period.  With Ovechkin in the box for tripping, Vegas had the Caps running around in their own end, and eventually the puck pinballed out to Smith, who had an open net into which he slid the puck.  With 28.2 seconds left in the period, Vegas was up, 3-2.

Third Period

The teams got off to an ornery start to the third period, both clubs drawing two sets of coincidental minor penalties for roughing – Brooks Orpik and Jay Beagle for the Caps, Tomas Tatar and Alex Tuch for Vegas.

Vegas took another penalty in the sixth minute, Tatar going off for hooking.  The Knights weathered the storm, though, in what appeared to be the Caps’ best remaining chance to make a new game of it.

The Caps did have more left in them, though.  Mid-way through the period, Devante Smith-Pelly cut across the slot and settled a shot from the left point off the stick of Brooks Orpik with his skate.  As he was being hooked/tripped by Colin Miller, he managed to get off a shot as he was falling, beating Fleury on the glove side to make it a 3-3 game 9:52 into the period.

And they had one more left in them.  The Caps worked the puck in deep, and Vegas defenseman Luc Sbisa went to try and collect it behind the Knights’ net.  He lost the puck in his skates, though, and it slid to Andre Burakovsky, who fed it in front to Brett Connolly steaming down the middle.  Connolly’s shot was stopped by Fleury, but the puck trickled through his pads.  Lars Eller jumped in, dug it out from between Fleury’s ankles, and snapped it into the back of the net from the top of the paint, and the Caps had the lead once more at 4-3, 12:23 into the period.

The clock could not move fast enough for the Caps after that, but Braden Holtby was the wall that would not yield, and the Caps skated off the last 7:37 to claim the Stanley Cup.

Other stuff…

-- Ovechkin’s goal was his 15th of the postseason, tying the high for a single postseason since 2005-2006 (Sidney Crosby in 2009).  It set a new franchise record for goals in a postseason (John Druce: 14 in 1990).

-- Vrana’s goal broke a 12-game streak without one, dating back to Game 5 against the Penguins.  That one was a game-winner for the Caps.

-- Lars Eller got the game-winning goal, his third of the postseason, all of them on the road.  He is the first player from Denmark to win a Stanley Cup.

-- The amazing thing on the score sheet… eleven different skaters recorded a point.  One point apiece. 

-- Ovechkin had 11 shot attempts, Lars Eller had five shots on goal (tied with Ovechkin), Tom Wilson had six credited hits, Michal Kempny had three blocked shots, Nicklas Backstrom won 14 of 22 draws (63.6 percent).

-- Evgeny Kuznetsov had an assist.  He finished with points in 19 of the 24 games of the postseason.

-- The win was the Caps’ tenth on the road in this postseason, tying an NHL record for one postseason.

-- John Carlson had an assist, giving him points in 15 of the 24 games from the blue line.  He led all playoff defensemen with 19 points and tied for the postseason lead in goals among defensemen (Dustin Byfuglien).

-- Devante Smith-Pelly’s goal was his seventh of the postseason, a career best and fourth highest on the team behind Ovechkin, Kuznetsov, and T.J. Oshie.

-- Braden Holtby stopped 28 of 31 shots for the win.  In the last 22 games he played, all starts after sitting for Philipp Grubauer to start the first two games of the postseason, he was 16-6, 2.17, .922.

-- The Caps came into this game as the only team in the postseason to have won two games when trailing after two periods.  Now, it's three.

In the end…

It all boils down to this in the end… Washington Capitals, Stanley Cup Champions.