The 5-0 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes was perhaps the worst overall effort by the club since sustaining a similarly underwhelming 5-0 loss to the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal game in 2013. The cousins were unhappy with the result then, and they are unhappy with last night's outcome that should serve as a wake-up call for the defending champs.
Peerless: Where does this rank in playoff game efforts for the Caps?
Fearless: I’m not sure this one ranks “top-five” in worst evers. There was that 5-0 loss to the Rangers in 2013. The 2-0 Game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 7 in 2017. The 3-0 loss to the Penguins in Game 7 in 1995. The…
Cheerless: We get the point.
Fearless: And those were shutouts in Games 7 of a series. The point is that the Caps have come up flatter in more desperate situations when you would think effort would be at a maximum. That is not to excuse what happened last night. In some respects it was a “top-five” poor effort. The big thing was the shots on goal. The Caps harp a lot on “quality over quantity” when it comes to such things, but Petr Mrazek is a goalie who has faced more than 30 shots in a postseason game only three times in his career, including Game 2 of this series, and he lost two of them. But in the four games before last night in which he played the full contest and faced fewer than 20 shots, he had a shutout and allowed one goal in another. The Caps had a record of 8-14 before last night in games in which they recorded fewer than 20 shots. It is no surprise that they lost.
Cheerless: It might not have been the weakest effort ever, but one shot in 40:20 of ice time from the first period to the third period? The Caps had five shots on goal in the last minute of the third period. Without those, they would have had 13 shots on goal, the second-lowest shot total for a Caps team in playoff history (they had 11 shots on goal in Game 4 of their conference semifinal against Ottawa in 1998 – the Caps won that game, 2-0). And, the silence was loud. As Peerless pointed out last night, “five Caps did not have a shot attempt – Nick Jensen, Jakub Vrana, Chandler Stephenson, Lars Eller, and Nic Dowd. Four others – Matt Niskanen, Christian Djoos, T.J. Oshie, and Brett Connolly – had one shot attempt.” The flip side of that is that three players – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and John Carlson – accounted for ten of the 18 shots and 23 of the 43 shot attempts. Shoot, the Caps had more hits (34) than shot attempts (33).
Peerless: The fight. Alex Ovechkin and Andrei Svechnikov squared off in the first period. They had been going at one another with love taps for much of the period, and then Svechnikov appeared to be the one who asked for the escalation in hostilities. Sometimes fights have an inspirational effect. Did it?
Feerless: I don’t think…
Cheerless: How come he always gets to go first? He’s always…
Feerless: Perhaps because it takes you a half hour to form a coherent sentence.
Cheerless: Oh, yeah?
Feerless: Good comeback.
Cheerless: Why you…. You wanna go?
Feerless: Any time…
Peerless: OK, guys. Thanks for the dinner theater version of “How a Hockey Fight Starts.” Can we get back on track? You go first, Cheerless.
Cheerless: I forgot what I was gonna say… Oh, yeah… Well, it did, just not the way the Caps would have liked. This was a pretty typical Caps road game until the fight, almost 11 minutes into the period. They were down a goal, but the shot attempts were even, and folks always say that on the road, try to keep things close early, and don’t let the fans into the game. In the last nine minutes of the period after the fight, Carolina out-shot the Caps, 7-2, and out-attempted them, 11-6. Carolina didn’t score over the remainder of the period, but they did have momentum that the Caps seemed to have in the first five minutes. They did not give it back.
Fearless: I think it certainly did, but in a subtle way. Cheerless almost got there with his mention of momentum. The turning point might have been less than two minutes after the fight when Jordan Staal was sent off on an interference penalty. One of, if not their best penalty killer, off the ice in a one-goal game, it might have been a chance for the Caps to build off Ovechkin winning the fight. But the Caps’ top power play scorer was in the box as a result of the fight, and the power play looked awful, a couple of shots from defensemen and a couple of misses. And it was Carolina who grabbed the momentum thereafter.
Peerless: To which we can segue into the special teams. Washington scored on their first two power plays of this series, back in the first period of Game 1. They have been shut out on ten power play chances since. After facing it for seven games, four in the regular season and three in the postseason, has Carolina figured out the Caps’ power play? If they have, what can Washington do about it?
Fearless: It is hard to say. Since they scored two goals those first two power plays, the Caps have no goals on 15 shots on eight power plays. They have four of those shots from Alex Ovechkin, four from John Carlson, two each from Nicklas Backstrom, T.J. Oshie, and Matt Niskanen. Lars Eller has the other. So, while one might quibble over whether it matters that Evgeny Kuznetsov does not have a power play shot on goal over those last eight power plays (any, in fact, in this series), the Caps have spread things around fairly well in terms of shooters. But it just looks slow, or at least slower than when it is clicking. Passes are made neither timely nor crisply. Is that system, or is it execution? Perhaps it is opportunity. Through three games in the first round last season, Washington was 6-for-17 against Columbus (35.3 percent). They are 2-for-12 through three games in this series (16.7 percent).
Cheerless: I ain’t an “x’s and o’s” guy...
Fearless: I thought those were the only two letters of the alphabet you knew…
Cheerless: haw-haw…fuh-nee. As I was saying, I ain’t an “x’s and o’s” guy, but maybe the Caps are just stale. But here is a weird fact. Petr Mrazek played in his first postseason game in 2015. In five postseasons starting with that one, Mrazek is second in save percentage against power plays among 23 goalies having played in at least ten games (.923). Only Cam Talbot has been better (.926). The thing with him is, though, when he has been bad, he has been awful. It just has not happened often. In 14 postseason games played, Mrazek has been perfect facing power plays 11 times. The other three times he allowed a total of six power play goals on 16 shots. He has been something of a home cooking guy defending power plays. He allowed three goals on ten shots in a 2016 postseason game against Tampa Bay, but in five other playoff games he played on home ice, including Monday’s game against the Caps, he has keep the net empty, stopping a total of 23 shots in those five games. The Caps haven’t lacked much for chances, their 12 power plays tied with St. Louis for seventh-most among the 16 playoff teams. But more opportunities couldn’t hurt, if only to make Mrazek work more for his success. And that means forcing play more than they did against Carolina on Monday, where the Hurricanes dictated pace and flow.
In the end…
Let us not make too much of one game. Yes, it stunk on toast. It was the biggest negative goal differential for the Caps in a playoff game (minus-5) since that 5-0 loss to the Rangers in Game 7 in 2013, the only times in the Ovechkin era that the Caps were as bad as minus-5 in a playoff game goal differential. But it was one game. What the Caps could do without is the drama of Game 3 – the fight, the Canes getting sucking it up even while short two forwards, the dead power play – and just play a nice, boring, put ‘em to sleep road game in Game 4. It was a key for the Caps in tying a league record for postseason wins on the road last year (ten). Do that, and they will return to Washington in a position to end the series.