Friday, April 19, 2019

Off Day: The Cousins Look Back on Game 4

The Washington Capitals held home ice advantage with two wins at Capital One Arena to open their first round series against the Carolina Hurricanes.  Carolina then did their part to force the Caps to try to maintain that advantage by winning two games on home ice at PNC Arena.  So, the Caps still have the edge, right?  The cousins aren’t so sure.

Peerless:  Let’s get to the big question.  Who has the edge in what is now a best-of-three series?

Cheerless:  Dang if sports doesn’t have some of the goofiest sayings.  One you hear everywhere in a series like this is “a playoff series doesn’t start until the home team loses.”  That one’s been around for more than 30 years (Thanks, Google).  Well, that’s crap.  Andrei Svechnikov, Jordan Martinook, Micheal Ferland, and T.J. Oshie would say the series started (and ended for at least one of them).  Then there is the “you dance with who brung ya” line.  Well, the Caps were brung here…

Fearless: That’s “brought,” cousin.”

Cheerless: …was BRUNG here by seven 20 goal scorers. Three of them – Jakub Vrana, Brett Connolly, and Evgeny Kuznetsov – don’t yet have a goal.  Tom Wilson and Oshie each have one.  The Caps are averaging 2.25 goals per game.  Only three teams have a worse scoring offense, and two of them – Tampa Bay (2.00) and Pittsburgh (1.50) are playing golf.  After scoring three goals in 18:05 to open the series, the Caps have six in their last 223:48, one of them an empty-netter.  They have six goals on their last 91 shots in that 223:48.  It is not so much that Carolina “has” an edge as much as that the Caps are not playing “with” an edge.  The results look like the product of the sort of effort one might see on a Tuesday night in January, not the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Fearless:  No team has fewer shots on goal in the playoffs than the Caps (100).  Only twice in 12 regulation periods of hockey have the Caps recorded more than 10 shots in a period.  Only Pittsburgh and Calgary have fewer 5-on-5 goals (four and three, respectively) than the Caps (five). Only Pittsburgh has fewer third period goals (one) than the Caps (two).  No team has fewer second period goals than the Caps (one, tied with the New York Islanders).  The Caps are minus-73 in 5-on-5 shot attempt differential, worst in the league by a couple of zip codes (Calgary is minus-47).  And, it is a product of attempts.  Washington has only 129 shot attempts of their own, last and 21 fewer than Columbus in as many games.  The good news… it has to get better.  This team is too good, too deep to continue playing like this, right?   …right?

Peerless:  The injury to T.J. Oshie could be season-ending.  First, should it be a suspendable offense for Warrren Foegele?  Second, just how big is it?

Fearless: Yes, it should be suspendable.  There are three parts to this.  One is the act.  Foegele trailed Oshie across the ice and cross checked him in the back ten feet from the side boards, propelling Oshie head first into the boards.  Oshie was attempting to take possession of a loose puck and could not see Foegele behind him.  He had no opportunity to brace for the hit, not being able to see Foegele and thus know when it was coming.  He was not close enough to the wall to be able to brace against it as the hit was delivered.  It was a textbook example of a player in a vulnerable position being taken advantage of.  Two, there is the result.  This is likely a series-ending, season-ending injury for Oshie.  This generally has some weight in the league’s deliberations.  Third, and for Foegele the mitigating factor, there is the history as a repeat offender.  Foegele is not generally thought of as a dirty player.  He had 20 minutes in penalties 77 regular season games, all the product of minor penalties.  The standard here is the suspension handed down to Nazem Kadri, who was suspended for the remainder of the first round after his hit on Jake DeBrusk in retaliation for deBrusk’s clean hit on Patrick Marleau in Game 2 of the Toronto-Boston series.  The league’s explanation of that hit focused on several factors – that it was not accidental or incidental (e.g., his stick riding up DeBrusk’s), it was retaliatory, and Kadri has an “extensive disciplinary track record

Foegele’s hit on Oshie was not of the deliberate sort Kadri’s seemed to be.  It was not retaliatory, and he does not have an extensive disciplinary track record.  So, for Caps fans thinking he should have the book thrown at him, that’s not going to happen.  However, it was reckless, it caused serious injury to the player in the context of his further availability, and it is an opportunity for the league to send a message about hits such as these being unacceptable, even in an intense playoff environment.  Foegele should be suspended, but if he is, it will not be for the duration of this series.  Well, that is unless the Caps win Games 5 and 6.  We’re thinking he could get two games.(UPDATE: Foegele will have neither a hearing, nor supplemental discipline applied).

As for how big?  This is an instance in which it is as much as who steps up as it is who is lost.  Oshie is a heart and soul kind of guy, and that is hard to replace.  Perhaps the team will rally around him in his absence.  The nuts and bolts consideration is who steps up to provide Oshie’s production.  Brett Connolly immediately comes to mind as the first player to step up a line.  He, being a right winger, had production similar to Oshie on a per-minute basis.  The Caps do have some options here, though.  If they do not want to break up the third line of Connolly-Lars Eller-Carl Hagelin, they could take a chance on Andre Burakovsky, who has been getting fourth line minutes.  He would be playing his off wing, but he has played some on the right side in the past.  If the Caps wanted to go way off the page, they could promote Devante Smith-Pelly from Hershey (which seems a real possibility anyway...UPDATE; DSP has been recalled).  Since he was sent down, DSP is 6-8-14, plus-2, in 20 regular season games, although he had only one goal and two assists in his last 12 games.  For the Caps, someone is going to have to rise above their comfort level to replace Oshie, and the player who replaces that player is going to have to contribute.

Cheerless: What Fearless said…

Peerless: We’re back to it.  Game 5…at home.  In the Rock the Red era of Caps hockey, Washington hosted 11 Games 5 through the 2016-2017 season.  They won eight of them.  The problem is that the Caps lost four of those series.  Last season, the Caps had two Games 5 on home ice, won both, and won both series, closing out the series against Columbus and Pittsburgh in the next game, played on the road.  The question is, which Caps team is going to show up?  The one that couldn’t close out a series with consistency, even with a Game 5 win, prior to last season, or last year’s team that won Game 5 at home and then closed out the series smartly?

Cheerless: The Caps have won five straight Games 5 on home ice and eight of their last nine (they won the series in which they lost Game 5, in 2016 against Philadelphia).  That after going 5-12 in Games 5 in their first 17 Games 5 in postseason history.  Looking at those five straight wins, three times the Caps won that Game 5 after losses in Games 4.  This has been a tough and resilient bunch in this part of the playoffs lately.

Fearless:  There is a “who” element that cannot be overlooked here.  Look at those last five Games 5 on home ice.  In those games, the Caps scored 19 goals.  Who led them?  Oshie (four).  He’s gone.  But who is next?  Evgeny Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom with three apiece.  Backstrom has contributed in this series against Carolina to date.  Kuznetsov hardly at all.  There will be a spotlight on him.  Another player who is going to have to show up here is Tom Wilson, but the good thing here might be in his weak baseline.  He does not have a goal in any of the four Games 5 on home ice in which he played among the five most recent ones played by the Caps.  Any contribution he might make could fill in for what is missing in Oshie’s absence.  

Boiled down, in the last five Games 5 at home, the stars played like stars – Oshie with four goals, Kuznetsov and Backstrom with three apiece, Ovechkin with two.  They have to be heard from.  But others are going to have to step up, and that is where the other 20 goal scorers – Wilson, Vrana, Connolly – have to contribute.  The other part of this is at the other end.  Braden Holtby has been the goalie in each of the last five Games 5 on home ice for the Caps.  He is 5-0, 1.92, .937 in those contests.  Whether Holtby plays to this level or at the level he played in the regular season (2.82, .911), which is pretty much where he is in the playoffs (3.00, .905) is going to go a long way toward whether the Caps can put themselves in a position to clinch the series in Game 6.

In the end…

The Caps have had uneven and inconsistent efforts in this series so far, both at a team and an individual level.  But except for the 5-0 blowout in Game 3, they have not been dominated by the Hurricanes (their shot differentials notwithstanding, but that has been a feature all season).  The Caps will miss T.J. Oshie, both in terms of the intensity he brings to the ice and his production.  The former cannot be duplicated if other players do not possess that effervescent trait, but others can – and have to – step up to provide the production.  And that is going to have to come from players who have not yet been heard from in this series.  That will be the difference between going back to Carolina in a position to clinch the series or going there with their status as defending champions on the line.