Monday, April 30, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinals: Game 2/Capitals at Rangers, April 30

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

It’s Game 2 from MSG. The Washington Capitals conclude the first leg of their seven-game series against the New York Rangers with Monday’s Game 2 in Madison Square Garden. The Caps lost Game 1 to put themselves behind the eight-…

“Ahem….”

Behind the eight-ball. Even though…

“A-HEM!”

Uh…even though the Caps won the first round series against the Boston Bruins after losing the first…

“A-HEM!!!”

What?!

“Cuz… losing Game 1 to these guys ain’t that big a deal.”

It’s not that big a deal? But now the Caps have to…

“Cousin, take a breath. Cheerless was spending some time in the library back at the cabin, and…”

The “library,” Fearless?

“Well… the bathroom. It’s well-stocked with reading material. Anyway, he was thumbing through the Caps Media Guide, and…”

You guys run out of toilet paper?

“Can we continue?”

Sorry…

“Well, you tell him Cheerless.”

“Well, cuz, the Media Guide ain’t no good as TP…it’s too rough, and the cover pages slip out of your hand and…”

“Tell him what you FOUND, you idiot.”

“Oh, yeah… I was lookin’ at the game-by-game results, and you know we’ve played the Rangers more’n a few times in the playoffs. We even started three series against those guys in New York City, where I gotta tell ya, they really make awful picante sauce. It tastes like watery ketchup and it has this odd smell that…”

Can we?

“Oh, yeah. Anyway, there was the series back in ’94 when the Caps were up against the Rangers for the second round, and they lost the first game, 6-3. The Caps went on to lose that series, but hey, everyone lost to the Rangers that year. But in 1991 the Caps lost the first game of their first round series against the Rangers up at Madison Square Garden, 2-1 – sound familiar? – but they shut ‘em out in the next one, 3-0. And even though they got basted…”

“Wasted”

Pasted

“Whatever...even though they lost, 6-0, in Game 3 at home, they came back and won the next three games.”

“See, cousin? There are many games yet to be played before we know who will advance to the next round.”

I didn’t mean to suggest things were over after one game. But that was just one series a long time ago.

“Yeah, but then there was the series back in ‘90 when they were up there for two games to start the second round and had their lunch eaten right in front of them in Game 1, probably with that icky sauce on it, the stuff runs down yer fingers and gets all over…”

The game, Cheerless?

“Yeah, well like I was sayin’, the Caps lost that first game up there, 7-3. Mike Liut got lit up more’n me on New Year’s Eve at the still. Bernie Nichols had a hat trick, somebody named John Ogrodnick had a goal – is that a real name, ‘Ogrodnick?’ Or is that a sound you make when you eat too much of that New York picante sauce?”

Enough with the sauce!

“Even Mike Gartner had a goal, stickin’ it to his old teammates. You mighta thought, ‘shoot…we suck.’ But the Caps won Game 2. They got a hat trick of their own. John Druce had it. Sorta like ‘Druce on the loose.’ Hey, I’m pretty good, huh?”

I think it’s been taken, cuz.

“Anyway, Druce had a hat trick, Mike Ridley had a goal; Bob Joyce had one; and even coach Hunter had one. It was smooth sailin’ after that. The Caps came home and beat the Rangers like a red-headed stepchild, 7-1, then won a couple o’ overtime games, the last one on a goal by Druce. Ya know, he had nine goals in that series?”

A series for the ages.

“It makes ya wonder.”

Wonder about what, Cheerless?”

“What sauce was HE eatin’?"

We don’t know what was on John Druce’s menu during that 1990 second round series against the Rangers, but it would be nice if the Caps could find a sample of it before Game 2 on Monday night in New York.

However, there is a certain confidence that the Caps can do well in this series, and that 1990 series is why. History is never repeated, but it can offer hints about what can happen. In this case, let’s take a look at some things Joe Sexton of the New York Times had to say upon the conclusion of the series…

“The not-entirely-unrealistic current of excitement concerned a run by the Rangers at the Stanley Cup, and it both lighted up people's imaginations and crackled inside Madison Square Garden. There was, after all, no prohibitive favorite, no defending champion, no reason the Rangers couldn't dream like the other remaining National Hockey League teams.”

Even though the Rangers led the Eastern Conference in standings points in the 2011-2012 regular season, the Pittsburgh Penguins were the odds-on favorite to win the Stanley Cup. They’re out. The Rangers – and the Caps, for that matter – can dream.

“The Capitals, who demonstrated the gifts of grit and passion throughout the series, accomplished with successive triumphs in overtime what had eluded them for their entire history as an organization and moved out of the Patrick Division.”

Grit? Passion? The Caps certainly had it in the first round this year, and they are traits that their head coach, Dale Hunter, brought to his game as a player back in 1990. The team seems to have adopted that attitude, although it was largely absent in Game 1. As for what eluded them for their entire history, the Caps are playing for a chance to advance to a conference final for only the third time in their history. If not unprecedented, it has been all too rare.

“The Capitals made everything tough for the Rangers in the series. They outhit them in all three zones and in every game. They rocked them in the second and third games of the series, outscoring them by 13-4, knocking them off their feet and off their game plan. And then they devastated them with consecutive triumphs in overtime.

“’I can't say enough about how well so many of them played,' James Patrick said of the Capitals. ‘Are they the better team? Right now, they are. Maybe a month ago they weren't, or a month from now they wouldn't be. But they are now. It was closer than a 4-1 series, but you certainly can't argue with the result.’”

A month ago, not many people would have given the Caps much of a chance to have advanced to the second round. It wasn’t a given that they would even make the playoffs. But they played hard-nosed hockey in the first round against the defending champions, and they are going to have to do it again if they are to get past the 2011-2012 regular season champions in the Eastern Conference.


The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

New York: Brad Richards

This is why they pay him the big bucks. Brad Richards is 3-3-6 in eight games so far in these playoffs and is 2-3-5 in his last five games, having a hand in half of the Rangers’ ten goals in that span. He has been in the middle of things at the other end, too, having been on the ice for five goals against in eight games, tied for tops among Ranger forwards. His goal against the Caps in Game 1 had the look of a veteran taking advantage of a rookie goalie’s wandering focus, and the Caps had success in keeping the Boston top line in check for most of the Boston series. If the Caps can get Braden Holtby back on track and apply the stifling defense they exhibited against the Bruins in Game 2 against the Rangers, Richards would not seem likely to get a point in consecutive games for the first time since March 30th.

Washington: Marcus Johansson

So, is there a “John Druce” waiting in the wings? Druce was in his second year with the Caps in 1990 and had a somewhat disappointing season in that he made no apparent progress from his first season. He was 8-7-15, plus-7 in 48 games in 1988-1989, his first season with the Caps after being a 40th overall draft pick in 1985. Then, he finished the 1989-1990 regular season 8-3-11, minus-3 in 45 games shuttling between the Caps and the Balitmore Skipjacks of the AHL. So, is there a somewhat underachieving sophomore who was a high draft pick who might provide a spark for the Caps? “Underachieving” is perhaps a harsh term for Marcus Johansson, a youngster who had 46 points in the regular season (tied for third on the team), but in his last 17 games (regular season and playoffs) he is 2-6-8, minus-5. There is a lot of “minus” in there (eight games in 17 on the wrong side of the ledger. Being “Druce-like” isn’t going to mean nine-goals in five games; this is an entirely different NHL. In this instance it means making a difference at both ends on a consistent basis, and Johansson certainly has the skill and the smarts to do just that.

Keys:

1. Recess is over. OK, the Caps had a tough seven-game series with Boston, and they looked as if they were suffering a hangover from it in Game 1. That has to be the end of it. That means they have to impose their will on the game from the start. The defense that limited the Rangers to 14 shots would be nice to see repeated, but the Caps have to do a much better job of taking the initiative to go to the net to do better than 18 shots on Henrik Lundqvist.

2. Don’t be coy, decoy. In Game 7 of the Boston series, Alex Ovechkin had two shots on goal. In Game 1 of this series he had one shot on goal. He is still the straw that stirs the drink. But right now this drink has no fizz. He needs to be stirring with more energy. He’s not a decoy.

3. Focus. It goes without saying that the Caps need more focus in goal than they got from Braden Holtby in Game 1. That should not be a problem, but the other side of the equation is that the Caps have to remember what worked in front of Holtby in the Boston series – clearing first shots away after Holtby made the save. That requires focus from the defense, too. Don’t forget what got you here.

In the end, according to the Web site whowins.com, NHL teams losing Game 1 of a second round best-of-seven series has won the series 31.4 percent of the time. When losing both Games 1 and 2 of the series that percentage drops to 16.2 percent. Given the way the first round went for home teams (not well – 18-30 in games overall), one is tempted to say, “history?...bah.” But having to win four of five remaining games would still be a daunting task. The Caps have been here before – just a couple of weeks ago, in fact. They can do this.

Capitals 3 – Rangers 2

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Eastern Conference Semifinals Game 1: Rangers 3 - Capitals 1

OK, that was a punch in the nose.

The Washington Capitals dropped Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semi-finals matchup with the New York Rangers yesterday by a 3-1 margin. It nip and tuck (and zzzzz) for 40 minutes, but the Rangers took advantage of goalie Braden Holtby for a pair of goals in the last 20 minutes for the win at Madison Square Garden.

It was one of the strangest performances by a Caps team in the playoffs in recent memory. Perhaps it was a product of the both teams having to grind out Game 7 wins just days ago, maybe it was the afternoon setting. But the teams could manage only ten shots between them in the first period, only 11 between them in the second. In that second period, the Caps made the first of what would be three mistakes of consequence when Artem Anisimov circled out from behind the Washington net with the puck.

Mike Green was draped all over Anisimov in what looked “footballish” in this respect. In football, a defender is often cautioned to take on a ball-carrier low in making a tackle. Taking on the ball-carrier high gives the ball-carrier leverage to add on additional yards. Here, Green tied up Anisimov high and even had inside position on him. But Anisimov used his greater size to obtain leverage, and with his hands and stick free, was able to snap a shot at Holtby from in close as he came around the left post. Holtby seemed surprised by the shot and did not close the hole between his left arm and body fast enough to prevent the puck from sneaking in.

The Caps tied things up on a prettier play in the last seconds of the period when Brooks Laich carried the puck down the right wing through the neutral zone. Jason Chimera was on his left, steaming down the middle of the ice. It looked harmless enough with Marc Staal marking Laich and Dan Girardi guarding Chimera. The wild card was Chimera’s superior speed. As Laich crossed the blue line, Chimera found a higher gear that Girardi didn’t have. He gained separation from the defender, and Laich found him with a fine saucer pass. Chimera had only to redirect the pass past goalie Henrik Lundqvist, and he did just that with 3.5 seconds left on the clock.

It might have made for some momentum-building excitement for the Caps, but it would be the Rangers that would take control of the game in a 90-second span of time in the third period. The game-winning play started in the Caps’ end when Derek Stepan collected he puck along the right wing wall and started up ice. He found exiting the zone a bit easier when Ryan Callahan set a moving pick on Marcus Johansson to deny Johansson the chance to interrupt Stepan’s forward motion. Stepan cashed in on the opportunity, breaking out of the zone and finding Chris Kreider breaking down the middle while the Caps were bollixing up a line change. Stepan wired a pass through as Kreider was breaking between Green and Roman Hamrlik. That was all the advantage Kreider needed as he sped in and rifled a shot past between Holtby’s left pad and glove that the young goalie would probably like to have back.

Just a minute and half later, Brad Richards took advantage of Holby when the veteran picked up a loose puck along the left wing wall and walked out showing “pass.” The ruse worked as Richards inched in, looked right, then pulled the puck back and beat Holtby through his pads to give the Rangers some insurance. Needing two goals to keep the game going, the Caps would manage only one shot on the Ranger net after that, and Game 1 belonged to the Rangers.

Other stuff…

-- The 14 shots on goal allowed by the Caps is a new franchise record for fewest shots allowed in a road playoff game. They allowed 15 to the New York Islanders in a 2-1 loss in Game 3 of the 1985 Patrick Division semi-finals.

-- Fifteen of 18 Caps had shots on goal. That means that no one had too many. In fact, 13 Caps had one shot on goal, sort of the “Whitman’s Sampler” of shooting confections.

-- Speaking of shots, Alex Ovechkin did not attempt a shot until the 8:05 mark of the second period. He recorded his only shot on goal at the 49-second mark of the third period. He is going to have to be more dynamic in his offensive effort if the Caps are going to win this series.

-- Holtby acknowledged after the game that he was not sufficiently engaged, and he paid the rookie’s price for letting his focus wander. The two goals in the third, perhaps products of worn-off adrenaline and focus creep, looked like products of his youth. Learning how to manage a game like this with these stakes is part of a crash course in goaltending at the NHL level that Holtby is still taking.

-- Of the Caps’ 49 shot attempts, 25 of them came from defensemen (five of the 18 shots on goal). Caps’ forwards are going to have to do a better job of creating traffic in front of Henrik Lundqvist to tip shots or collect rebounds. Clean first shots aren’t going to be beating this guy often.

-- The Caps were 5-for-15 on faceoffs in the offensive end; 11-for-17 in the defensive zone. Hard for either team to get started when neither one starts too often with the puck in control.

-- Good Sasha…three shots on goal (led the team), a hit, a takeaway. Bad Sasha… two penalties, one an offensive zone tripping call early in the third period after the Caps scored that tying goal in the last seconds of the second period.

-- The Caps certainly consumed more than their minimum daily requirement of iron in this one. We counted at least four instances of a Cap beating Lundqvist and hitting a post or a crossbar. But that’s hockey. It does, however, provide an ominous tone going forward for the Rangers. The Caps have displayed a knack for beating Lundqvist, and when four of the 16 missed shots had sound effects, you have to wonder if the posts will be as forgiving for the Rangers moving forward.

-- The Caps held Ranger forwards to eight shots on goal, only seven of them at even strength. If the Caps do that over a series, they should win. They should not count on it.

In the end, you could say that the Rangers’ late season rookie addition – Chris Kreider (1-1-2) – was better than the Caps’ late season rookie addition – Braden Holtby (11 saves on 14 shots). But the Caps lacked the energy and focus that they had late in the series against Boston. Perhaps this is only natural. Even in the playoffs, there has to be a let-down after winning a Game 7 on the road in overtime. And, the Rangers after all merely held serve. The Caps still have an opportunity to get a foothold in this series on Monday night if they can beat Henrik Lundqvist without the sound effects. It isn’t as if they haven’t done it before.

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Semifinals: Capitals vs. Rangers

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Well, the view is nicer from up here in the second round, even if it isn’t new.

The Washington Capitals defied the prognostications of so-called experts (yours truly excepted) to advance to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals where they will meet a familiar adversary – the New York Rangers (cue the low, ominous baritone of Wes Johnson… “the Noooo Yo-o-o-o-ork Ran-n-n-n-gers).

Yup, the Blueshirts again for the third time in four years. The difference this time is that roles are reversed. Instead of the Caps facing the Rangers as a two-versus-seven or one-versus-eight seed, the Caps are the ones looking up as a seven-versus-one seed in the second round.

Only twice in franchise history have the Caps entered the playoffs coming off a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference, and only once did they do so and advance to the second round. They did that in 1994… against the Rangers. It did not go well.

In 1994 the Rangers has players such as Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch, Alex Kovalev, and Mike Gartner (ok, they traded him to Toronto for Glenn Anderson, another name you might recognize). They had Mike Richter in goal. The Caps? Well, they had Mike Ridley, Dmitri Khristich, Michal Pivonka, and Randy Burridge (oh, and a young Peter Bondra). They had Don Beaupre in goal. Nice players, but with the exception of Bondra, do you seen anyone close to being a hall of famer in there?

The results were predictable. The Rangers won the first three games by a combined score of 14-5 and coasted to a five-game series win – a speed bump on their road to a Stanley Cup.

But there is that whole familiarity thing of more recent vintage. The Caps own an 8-4 record against New York in the last two meetings of these teams in the playoffs, a 4-3 series win in 2009 and a 4-2 series win last spring. In doing so, they outscored the Rangers by a 32-19 margin in the 12 games and shut them out three times.

The View from 30,000 feet


(click pics for larger images)

Offense

The Rangers are not as offensively-challenged as they might have been when entering the playoffs in 2009 (28th in goals per game) or 2011 (14th), but this is not a juggernaut, either (11th this past regular season). However, they seem to have picked a bad time to channel their inner offensive demons. In the first round the Rangers managed only 14 goals (2.00 per game) and scored more than three only once, in Game 1, against the Ottawa Senators, a team that finished 24th in the regular season in goals allowed per game.

One problem for the Rangers has been getting started in the first place. They were 26th in the league during the regular season in first period goals scored and managed only four such goals in the seven games of the opening round against Ottawa. Only four teams scored fewer, including Ottawa, and three of them played only five games.

The Rangers also have suffered a lack of secondary scoring. They got no goals from Artem Anisimov, Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Dubinsky, or Carl Hagelin (when he wasn’t suspended) in the first round. Their primary scoring wasn’t that productive, either. Marian Gaborik had but one goal in seven games, that coming in Game 1 against the Senators. The total effect is that the Rangers have the worst shooting percentage of any team advancing to the second round (6.7 percent).

On the other hand, the Capitals were hardly burning out bulbs on the scoreboard in the first round, either. They scored 16 goals against the Boston Bruins. If the Capitals’ offense was geography, it would look like the South Pacific Ocean – little dots of land representing goals on an ocean of minutes. Only twice in 21 regulation periods of hockey did the Caps manage as many as two goals in a period, both coming in their 4-3 win in Boston in Game 5 (periods two and three).

The Caps have had the blessing of a certain sort of “balance” in their playoff scoring – 12 players account for the 16 goals. But the other side of that coin is that there have been no flurries from the players you might expect them from. Alexander Semin has three goals, a respectable total for seven games, but Alex Ovechkin has two (both in losses), and his Core Four running mates Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green have one apiece.

The Caps problems have been reflected in a manner different from the Rangers. Where the Rangers have a hard time getting started, the Caps had a hard time reaching any level of sustainable production on a period to period basis. Their scoring by period was four goals in the first period, six in the second, four in the third, and two in overtime. The effect of all of this is that the Caps finished sixth among the eight second round contestants with a 7.7 percent shooting percentage.

Defense

If the offenses were unproductive in the first round, then it only makes sense that the defenses for these teams were quite capable. Otherwise, we’re not writing this wordy tome. And they were.

The Rangers held the Ottawa Senators to a measly 13 goals and never allowed more than two goals in regulation in the seven-game series. Part of it was holding the Senators to a manageable number of shots (29.7/game; fifth fewest among the second round teams). Part of it was holding the big scorers away from shots on goal. Part of it was making sure guys who should score didn’t get the chance. For instance, Jason Spezza had a hand in five of the Senators’ 13 goals for the series (38.5 percent), not altogether different from his regular season mark (34.6 percent). Same for Daniel Alfredsson (24.3 percent in the regular season and 25.0 percent of the goals scored by Ottawa in the four games in which he played). But Erik Karlsson? He was in on 32.1 percent of the Senators’ goals in the regular season, only 7.7 percent (one goal) against the Rangers. Milan Michalek – 24.7 percent of Ottawa goals in the regular season, only 15.4 percent (a goal and an assist). The Rangers get good goaltending, and we will get to that, but they do a good job limiting occasions of pucks getting to their net by dangerous players, too.

The Caps held the defending Stanley Cup champions – a team that averaged 3.17 goals per game in the regular season (tied for second) – to 15 goals in seven games (2.14 a game). They held the Bruins to a shooting percentage of 6.1 percent in the seven-game series win, when Boston came into the series with a 9.8 percent shooting percentage for the season. Part of that was the unexpected goaltending of Braden Holtby, but much of it was a relentless effort in keeping the Bruins on the perimeter, denying them the opportunity to pack forwards in close to hammer away at rebounds or deflect shots. Nothing illustrates the concept like the shot chart from Game 7:



Only six of 32 shots were taken from the “home plate” high opportunity scoring area. Rare is the team that can get that few close-in looks at the net and find the back of it with any frequency. The Caps ability to sustain this kind of frustrating long-range look at their net relives young Holtby of the responsibility for making big saves or from having to repel flurries of shots.

But the Caps are going to have to deal with a problem that they managed to dodge in Round 1. That would be the third defense pairing. John Carlson and Karl Alzner were not efficient, at least as measured by their Corsi On-Ice numbers at five-on-five, but they were effective – four goals scored against while on ice in an average of 143:03 in ice time at even strength between them for the series. Mike Green (three goals against on ice) and Roman Hamrlik (four) seem to have developed an easy chemistry between them. But Dennis Wideman was on ice for eight of the 12 even strength goals scored by the Bruins, and his partner was not a given, either. Jeff Schultz was his partner for four games (on ice for four goals against), John Erskine for the other three (three goals against on ice). This is the soft underbelly of the defense, and the series could turn on whether the Caps can hide this problem or if Dennis Wideman becomes more effective in his own end of the ice on a more consistent basis.

Special Teams

The Rangers solved Ottawa for five power play goals in 32 opportunities – 15.63 percent. For the regular season they were 44-for-280 – 15.71 percent. They have been nothing if not consistent. But what has been striking in the Rangers’ post season is that volume counts. Twice they were awarded seven power plays in their first-round series against Ottawa, and on both occasions scored twice with the man advantage. In the other five games they had four or fewer power play chances and were a combined 1-for-18. What might be most surprising is that Anton Stralman, who had no power play goals and only four power play assists in 53 regular season games, has two power play goals and an assist among the five Ranger power play goals so far. Is that sustainable, and if not, does Marian Gaborik get untracked (no power play goals in more than 35 minutes of power play ice time in the opening round)?

On the penalty kill the Rangers were reasonably effective in the Ottawa series (84.6 percent), but they have allowed power play goals in each of the last two games in a total of seven opportunities for the Senators. Three of the four power play goals they allowed in the series either tied games of gave the Senators the lead. And the other – by Daniel Alfredsson in Game 7 – came barely two minutes after the Rangers took a 2-0 lead. None of these goals were window dressing.

For the Caps, the issue was less efficiency (15.8 percent in the Boston series, eighth among the 16 teams) than effectiveness (they had only 19 opportunities in seven games – no team had fewer opportunities per game). This has been an issue all season; only three teams had fewer power play opportunities in the regular season. They were “out-opportunitied” in five of the seven games against Boston in the opening round (including all three losses). They were not appreciably more successful against the Rangers in drawing opportunities, making their 2-for-11 mark in four games look decent enough (18.2 percent), but not especially effective.

On the penalty kill, the Caps were very efficient in the Boston series – 91.2 percent on 21-for-23 (second among the 16 playoff teams). What contributed to the efficiency was the Caps’ ability to limit shots. Boston had only 27 shots in almost 42 minutes of power play time for the series. It was part of an inside-out defensive approach that kept the Bruins to the outside. If they can repeat this performance against the Rangers, the New Yorkers have not displayed the sort of consistency of success on the power play to suggest they will be any more successful against Washington than the Bruins were.

The Season Series

Game 1: November 25th, Rangers 6 – @Capitals 3

This game gave no early indications it would be either high-scoring or a blow-out. The teams split 16 shots in the first period, none of them finding the back of the net. The close, low-scoring game dissolved under a barrage of Ranger goals early in the second period. Three Ranger goals in a space of 4:22 let the Rangers pull away, or so one might have thought. Troy Brouwer scored 58 seconds after the third Ranger goal, and John Carlson scored on a power play four minutes later to get the Caps within a goal. But Brian Boyle scored when Michal Neuvirth fumble a puck out of his glove with 3:11 left in the period to provide some breathing room Brad Richards scored early in the third to restore the Rangers’ three goal lead. Alex Ovechkin and Ruslan Fedotenko provided some window dressing for the final score. The Caps were held to 21 shots. Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his coaching duties a few days later.

December 28th: Game 2: @Washington 4 – Rangers 1

The Caps and Rangers exchanged first period goals, but mid-way through the second John Carlson dipped low to keep a puck from exiting the offensive zone, regained his stance and fired a shot at the Ranger net that Troy Brouwer redirected past goalie Martin Biron to give the Caps a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish. Alexander Semin added a pair of goals, while Tomas Vokoun stopped 21 of 32 shots.

Game 3: February 12th, @Rangers 3 – Capitals 2

This one was the Ryan and Ryan show for the Rangers. Ryans Callahan and McDonagh sandwiched a goal by Alexander Semin to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead through two periods. Brandon Prust scored what would be the game-winning goal in the seventh minute of the third period, converting pass a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush from Brandon Dubinsky. John Carlson got the Caps within a goal with under three minutes left, but the Caps would get no closer.

Game 4: April 7th, Capitals 4 - @Rangers 1

In the season finale at Madison Square Garden, the Caps made an early statement in this one. Alex Ovechkin scored 32 seconds into the first period, and Mathieu Perreault potted one less than two minutes later. John Carlson scored on a late power play to give the Caps a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. The teams exchanged goals in the second period, the Caps getting theirs from Nicklas Backstrom, his first since missing 40 games from a concussion. Braden Holtby stopped 35 of 36 shots for the win in which the Caps registered only 17 shots of their own.

The Competition:

Washington: 16-10-4 against Eastern Conference playoff teams
New York: 20-12-2 against Eastern Conference playoff teams

Goaltending

New York – Henrik Lundqvist (season series): 2-1-0, 3.00, .859; Martin Biron (season series): 0-1-0, 4.01, .826
Washington -- Braden Holtby (season series): 1-0-0, 1.00, .972; Michal Neuvirth: 0-2-0, 4.53, .852; Tomas Vokoun: 1-0-0, 1.00, .969

This is something of an odd matchup. The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist – a Hart Trophy finalist and duly recognized as one of the top goalies in the game – has been quite mortal against the Caps in his last two playoff series: 4-8, 2.64, .912, with one shutout. That 3.00 goals against average and .859 save percentage during the regular season suggest that the Caps might just be one of those teams that knows where the holes are. On the other hand, there is Braden Hotlby with just two career appearances against the Rangers in which he is 1-0-1, 0.96, .969, his loss coming in a Gimmick decision in January 2011. If one just looked at the names, one might think the Rangers have a distinct advantage. Lundqvist is certainly capable of carrying his team through a series, and his 1.40 GAA and .945 save percentage against Ottawa is evidence of that. And Braden Holby certainly could wake up one morning to find that the coach carrying him through these playoffs so far has turned into a pumpkin. But things are not at cut and dried as one might think just looking at the names.

Coaching

John Tortorella has a Stanley Cup on his resume. That’s the good part. Since he won that Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, his record is 11-19 (including the game he missed for improper use of a water bottle), the series win over Ottawa being his first since that Stanley Cup final in 2004. His team is certainly a reflection of his style – feisty, offer no quarter, hard working. He is also 0-for-2 in playoff series against the Caps as the Rangers’ bench boss. You can almost see him baring his teeth at the prospect of reversing that record.

Behind the other bench, Dale Hunter now has an NHL playoff series win under his belt. However he is doing it, and at times it is a wonderment (Exhibit 1: Alex Ovechkin’s even strength ice time), he is doing it. The Caps are in some ways an embodiment of his playing style – feisty, offer no quarter, hard working (just without the chippiness, although the Boston Bruins, their media, and their fans might disagree). Neither he nor Tortorella impress us as being big “x’s and o’s” coaches. They seem to be more motivators, Tortorella with an in-your-face style, Hunter by way of example and persuading his team that they can win sacrificing run-and-gun for “mind your P’s and Q’s.”

Stars Who Must be Stars

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Now we are getting to the nub of it. Ovechkin did not have an impressive series against Boston. In fact, he looked to be a cog instead of the axle around which the Caps turn. Maybe it was a product of ice time, maybe it was a product of his trying to assimilate “Hunter Hockey” into his repertoire. But he is 15-14-29 in 28 career games against the Rangers with six power play goals. In 12 playoff games against the Blueshirts he is 6-7-13. He is going to need to approach those numbers on a per-game basis if the Caps are to move on.

New York: Marian Gaborik

Marian Gaborik has 105 goals in 220 regular season games with the Rangers. He has two goals in 12 playoff games. If that kind of disparity carries over into this series, the Rangers face an uphill climb to advance. He does not have big numbers against the Caps over his career: 7-3-10 in 17 games, one of those goals coming in the 6-3 win over Washington on November 25th. He does not come into this series on much of a hot streak. He scored a goal in Game 1 against Ottawa, but failed to record another on any of his nine shots in the last six games of the series. The number that sticks out there is “nine.” If the Caps hold him to a shot and a half a game in this series, it bodes well for the Caps.


Guys Who Might Be Heroes

Washington: Mike Green

It pays to listen to your Uncle Peerless here. We had this one nailed in Round 1. Now listen up. It might seem odd to see Mike Green here, given his pedigree. But Green has morphed into more of a defensive defenseman. In the Boston series he had one goal in seven games on only 11 shots, a far cry from the guy who had 31 goals in the 2008-2009 season and had consecutive seasons of better than a point a game. But this is “Game Over Green,” too, with five goals and 13 points in 17 career games against New York. Two of those five goals are game-winners. The Caps do not need him to be the Mike Green of 2008-2009, but if they get any little bit more production from him than what he provided in the first round, it could spell doom for the Rangers.

New York: Carl Hagelin

Carl Hagelin, a sixth-round draft pick in 2007, finished seventh among rookies in goal scoring this season. His speed and ability to find the back of the net might spell trouble for the Caps. However, he has not recorded a goal since March 15th (16 games). He has yet to score a goal against Washington (0-1-1 in four games) and is a minus-4. It suggests that the other side of that scoring coin is that he and his linemates can be exploited at the other end of the rink. Does he have the physical stature to be able to compete with larger Washington forwards?

In the end…

The Rangers come into this game as, if not a prohibitive favorite, then a solid one. We’re puzzled as to why. This is a team that has more consistent goaltending than the Boston team the Caps faced in Round 1, but goaltending that has come up short against the Caps in playoffs past. The Rangers do not have the depth or physicality on the blue line that the Bruins brought to the rink, and they do not have the depth of scoring at forward. Further, Brian Boyle, who has been something of an unsung hero against the Caps (5-5-10 in 13 career games against Washington), is of uncertain status after being concussed by a Chris Neil hit last weekend.

The Caps are 2-1 against the Rangers under Dale Hunter, having allowed only five goals in the process. The Rangers could certainly win this series, but it is a reach to think they could do it in short order. Rather, the Caps, who eliminated this team in five games last spring, have the pieces to make this series difficult for the Rangers. And New York is on quite a “meh” streak of their own. They wrapped up the regular season with a 5-4-0 record, four of those wins coming against a succession of tomato cans (Toronto, Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Montreal), then struggled mightily against the Senators in the first round, getting three of their four wins by one goal.

This will be another series in which the Caps are given little chance to move on. But move on they will.

Capitals in six

Have Faith














Thursday, April 26, 2012

Something's Happening Here?

There's something happening here.  What it is ain't exactly clear…

For the tenth time in franchise history, the Washington Capitals are advancing to the second round of the NHL Stanley Cup playoffs. Only twice have they escaped the second round. In its own way, the second round has been a special place of misfortune for the Caps. In 1986 they entered the second round as a heavy favorite to oust the New York Rangers, but lost in six games to a team that finished 29 points behind them in the regular season standings.

In 1988 the Caps skated into the second round fresh off a thrilling seven-game series win over the Philadelphia Flyers in which they came back from a three-games-to-one deficit and won the series in overtime on a goal by current head coach Dale Hunter. They found the New Jersey Devils facing them in the second round, and they dispatched the Devils in business-like fashion in Game 1 by a 3-1 margin. But with less than seven minutes left in that game, Pat Verbeek and Rod Langway tangled up behind the Caps net, and Verbeek slice Langway’s left calf open with his skate. The series-ending injury to their top defenseman discombobulated the Capitals, who surrendered 15 goals over the next two games to go down two-games-to-one, a disadvantage they would be clawing uphill against for the rest of the series before losing Game 7 by a 3-2 margin.

In 1991, the Caps won another their opening round series against the Rangers, only to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round. It would be the first time the Capitals would face the Penguins in the playoffs, the Penguins coming off a hard-fought seven-game series against the Devils in round one. The Caps gave their fans a reason to hope for better things when they beat the Penguins in Game 1, 4-2, on goals by Kelly Miller and three defensemen – Kevin Hatcher, Al Iafrate, and Calle Johansson. But the Penguins acquainted Caps fans with the concept of hopes crushed, taking Game 2 in a wild 7-6 overtime decision, and then closing out the series in Games 4 and 5 on their way to their first Stanley Cup.

In 1994 the Caps managed to beat the Penguins in a six-game opening round, but they were little more than a speed bump for the Rangers on their march to a championship, beating the Caps in the first three games of the series by a combined score of 14-5 and eventually winning the series four games to one.

After that, the Caps would win second round series in 1998 (on their own march to a Stanley Cup final), but it would be the only second round series they would play until 2009. There, they faced the Penguins again in the first post-season meeting of Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby. The series lived up to the hype, and then some. Semyon Varlamov stole a goal right off the goal line in 3-2 Game 1 win for the Caps. Ovechkin and Crosby exchanged hat tricks in a 4-3 Game 2 win for Washington that might have been the best mano-a-mano duel in recent playoff history. Pittsburgh won the middle three games, the last one a harbinger of things to come when Capitals defensemen Tom Poti, trying to block a pass from Evgeni Malkin across the Capitals’ crease, deflected the puck into his own net for a 4-3 overtime loss. The Caps returned the favor with a 5-4 overtime win in Pittsburgh in Game 6, but the clock struck midnight – loudly – in Game 7 for the Caps. The Penguins scored two first period goals and then another two minutes into the third period and won going away, 6-2, to take the series.

Last season, Washington knocked the Rangers out of the playoffs for the fourth time in franchise history, which led them to the Tampa Bay Lighting, a team against which they had a 4-1-1 record in the regular season. But the Lightning stunned the Caps with a pair of wins on Washington ice to start the series, and the Caps never recovered, getting swept in a seven-game playoff series for only the third time in franchise history, and the first time they were swept sooner than the conference final.

That is a lot of unfortunate history in the second round. Generally, the losses fall into two types. There are those in which the Caps were a hard-working team of good, but not elite skill that just did not have another gear they could call upon to move further. The 1988, 1991, and 1994 teams would fall under this category. Then there was the team that simply underachieved – the 2011 team. You could make an argument that the Caps of 2009 were of the former category, but this was a team that had the series on its plate with a Game 7 on home ice and gagged on it.

Which brings us to the 2012 team about to enter the second round, and there is something happening here. In some respects they resemble the teams of the first category – ones that have their share of hard working players in a system that stresses responsibility and attention to defense. It is not a risk-taking team, certainly not of the type that Caps fans have become used to in recent years. As such, one wonders if it has the next gear to call upon to move past the next opponent, the gear that those teams in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s did not have.

In other respects this 2012 edition of the Caps looks like the second category of teams from the past – a team that does have high-end talent  -- a team with that extra gear -- but, as evidenced from their seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference in the regular season, one capable of underachieving on large scale.

Something else seems to be going on here, though. This team has a different look to it than any of those in either of the two categories identified.  At least through the first round of this series, the Caps seem to have taken a page from each of the other categories of teams. The Caps held the Boston Bruins to a total of 15 goals in seven games and killed off 21 of 23 shorthanded situations. That they would do so against a team as deep as the battle-tested defending Stanley Cup champions is evidence of a team-wide willingness to put in the effort, to do the little things and do the hard work it takes to grind out wins at this time of year. A lot like those teams of the 1980’s and early 1990’s.

But this team is much more skilled than those earlier teams. The core of this roster is still the one that led the Caps to three consecutive 100-point seasons, two consecutive conference titles, and a Presidents Trophy. Alex Ovechkin led all Caps with five points for the series with the Bruins and tied with Boston’s Rich Peverley for the lead among all players. Nicklas Backstrom and Brooks Laich were each 1-3-4 in a close-checking series, and Alexander Semin had three goals. The difference is that when the skill didn’t come out to play, these same players did the things they needed to do to grind out wins.

The mating of elements from teams of years past seems to have created a new compound for the 2012 Capitals – resolve. And they applied both the noun and verb usages of the term in the opening round. They resolved doubts about their ability to compete with a team that would challenged them physically and psychologically. They also expressed a firmness of purpose and a determination – a resolve – to do what they needed to do to score and not be scored upon.

It is this new substance that the Capitals lacked in sufficient quantity in the earlier editions of teams that failed in the second round, and it was almost entirely absent from the teams that failed more recently. But the Caps appear to have found the wellspring of resolve and will have to apply it liberally to the next challenge in the road to a Stanley Cup.

32...It's Not Just a Retired Jersey Number

Mel Hill
Leo Reise
Pete Babando
Tony Leswick
Gerry Melnyk
Kevin O’Shea
Lanny McDonald
Yvon Lambert
Brad Park
Steve Payne
Peter Stastny
Claude Lemieux
Pat LaFontaine
Dale Hunter
Joel Otto
Esa Tikkanen
Russ Courtnall
Nikolai Borschevsky
David Volek
Pavel Bure
Stephane Matteau
Ray Whitney
Steve Yzerman
Derek Plante
Todd Marchant
Pierre Turgeon
Darius Kasparaitis
Andrew Brunette
Martin Gelinas
Joffrey Lupul
Scott Walker

…and Joel Ward, the 32nd player in NHL history to end a playoff series in overtime in Game 7.

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 7: Capitals 2 - Bruins 1

The King is dead! Long live the…

Well, there will be time for that. In the meantime, the Washington Capitals eliminated the Boston Bruins in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series with a nerve-wracking, fingernail-chewing, beard-pulling, face-in-the-pillow 2-1 overtime win at TD Garden in Boston.

Joel Ward, who had not recorded a goal in his previous 19 games, and who had only one in his last 41 games – half a regular season’s worth of games – scored at 2:57 of the first overtime to send the Caps to the second round.

It was a freakishly sudden end to a game that had been more than 60 minutes of grinding force. In fact, the whole ending sequence took all of eight seconds. Benoit Pouliot tried to hammer the puck down the right wing boards from just outside the Caps’ blue line, but it was blocked out of the zone where Mike Knuble picked it up.

Knuble wasted no time getting a jump on the stunned Boston defense and found himself on a 2-on-1 rush with Joel Ward with only Greg Zanon back and Pouliot desperately trying to close the ground on Knuble. The Caps right winger fended off Pouliot and managed a backhand attempt on goalie Tim Thomas, who kicked the puck out in the direction from which it came. However, Ward did not skate down the lane to Knuble’s right to the net, but crossed behind Knuble as he was getting his shot off. Ward was in perfect position to swat the rebound past the fallen Thomas, and TD Garden went silent save for the whooping and hollering of 20 white-clad Caps who congratulated Ward.

All in eight seconds.

Other stuff…

-- Mistakes matter in games that have such small margins for error. Boston made one mid-way through the first period, and it cost them. Jason Chimera had the puck along the right-wing wall where he fed if back to John Carlson. As this was going on, Matt Hendricks was in the middle of the offensive zone, circling to find a void in the Boston defense. He did, as neither Milan Lucic nor Johnny Boychuk appeared to pay him much mind. It allowed Hendricks to turn around to face Carlson as the defenseman was winding up for a slap shot. When Carlson sent the puck to the net, Hendricks had an unburdened opportunity to redirect the puck, and he did just that, altering the path of the puck just enough for it to elude Thomas on the stick side and just inside the far post to give the Caps a lead.

-- And the Caps made one of sorts to return the favor. Late in the second period the Caps were looking as if they were doing everything right, keeping the Bruins to the outside and unable to get any traction deep in the Washington end. Andrew Ference was reduced to trying to get the puck to the net from almost the exact spot from which Carlson started the Caps’ first scoring play a period earlier. He did manage to get it there, and even then, the Caps did just about everything right with Carlson and Karl Alzner defending Tyler Seguin. But Alzner could not tie up Seguin’s stick enough, and the Bruin had just enough of a chance to slip the puck the last couple of feet to tie the game.

-- Talk about secondary scoring in spades! Hendricks and Ward get the goals; they had ten between them in the regular season in 151 man games. Chimera and Knuble with helpers; they had 31 between them in 154 man games. In a series when Boston’s depth was the biggest problem facing the Caps’ defense, it would be the Caps’ “depth” on offense that would decide the series’ ultimate game.

-- The more one watches Braden Holtby, the more one is reminded of Olaf Kolzig in this sense. He is, like Kolzig was, nominally a “butterfly” goaltender. But he looks like a linebacker doing it. The movements are aggressive. It sometimes makes for adventures handling the puck, especially when it hits his chest and he starts looking for it. But he is quick enough to cover loose pucks before damage ensues.

-- John Carlson had an assist, and he was on ice when Boston scored their only goal. But for a guy who struggled mightily in the regular season with the defensive side of things, he came up big in this game and this series. He and his partner – Karl Alzner – were on ice for only four of the 15 goals scored by the Bruins in this series despite each getting more than 23 minutes a game.

-- Speaking of four goals against while on ice, that was the total Mike Green finished with for the series, none of them (of course) in this game. And he averaged more than 23 minutes a night, too. Green’s evolution as a capable “defensive” defenseman, if not completed, is certainly within sight of it.

-- How many Caps fans were screaming at their television sets with 2:26 left in the game when Jason Chimera was sent off for holding? Earlier in the day, Alan May was on a local radio show saying that in Games 7 referees will let everything go and then call something late. Well, there you go.

-- The Core Four had a total of six shots on goal for the game and no points, and although Backstrom and Semin were on ice for Seguin’s goal, they could not be faulted for their defense on the play. It was part of a solid act by all four in playing 200 feet instead of the 100 or so their collective reputation would suggest.

-- Give credit to Boston. They brought a champion’s resolve to this one. Sixty-one shot attempts, 36 hits. If they were going down, they were going to do it playing Bruins’ hockey. Which made the Caps’ win sweeter in that they stood up to it. An example – Zdeno Chara, with the hardest shot in the game, had seven shots blocked. Three by John Carlson, two by Dennis Wideman, and one each by Troy Brouwer and Alexander Semin. Not for the faint of heart.

-- Little things… Jay Beagle won six of eight draws in the defensive zone, part of a 12-for-16 night for the Caps in the defensive end. However, it shined a bright light on the fact that Patrice Bergeron had to be hurting. He took only one draw all night (and won it)… Nine Caps had blocked shots; 11 had hits…although they had only 44 shot attempts, they were efficient with them; only five were misses.

In the end, the fact that Joel Ward led the Caps in shot attempts (five) tells you what kind of game this was. Hockey is not war, but war analogies are sometimes apt. This was infantry on both sides going toe to toe in the mud and at close range. No one was yielding an inch of territory, and the slightest advantage appeared for a moment and was soon gone. But in playoff hockey, even the longest, hardest fought battles can end in the blink of an eye. And thus, so did this one.

In eight seconds, as a matter of fact.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

When All Is Said And Done

This is what it will be about... the competition and the respect.



A doff of the cap to Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe, whose feature on the series-ending handshake led us to this photo.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 7/Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Capitals at Bruins, April 25th

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Game 7. Ho-hum. The Washington Capitals – participants in four Game 7’s in the last six post-season series they played – will face the Boston Bruins in Game 7 at TD Garden to decide who moves on to the Eastern Conference semi-finals and who takes their balls to the first tee on Thursday.

The Caps have a rather grim history in Game 7’s in their history. They are 2-7 all-time in Game 7’s, including their only road game in the mutual elimination game. But on the road is where they have to do it, where they have to subdue the cosmic forces that have aligned themselves with opponents of the Capitals in years past. Maybe Boston holds the answer. There is someone there who has a rather unique take on cosmic forces. Perhaps we can prevail upon him for some insight…

-- knock knock –

“Who the hell are YOU?!”

Sir, my name is The Peerless, and it’s a great pleasure to finally—

-SLAM-

-- knock knock –

“We got a learning disability here?”

Mr. Mann, I’ve come close to 450 miles to see you at the risk of… wait, didn’t there use to be a pull-chain door-bell here?... If I could just have a minute…please.

“Look, I still can’t tell you the secret of life, and I still don’t have any answers for you. I don’t give interviews, and ever since I walked into that damn corn field in Iowa, I’m no longer a public figure. I just want to be left alone. So #@$% off."

Just one minute, I’m begging you.



“…one minute.”

OK, I understand your desire for privacy, even though that whole disappearing in a corn field thing was pretty cool, and I wouldn’t dream of intruding if this weren’t extremely important.

“Oh, God. I don’t do causes anymore.”

This isn’t a cause. I don’t need money or an endorsement.

“Refreshing.”

You once wrote…”there comes a time when all the cosmic tumblers have clicked into place, and the universe opens itself up for a few seconds, to show you what is possible.”

“Oh my God.”

What.

“You’re from an old movie…Out! Out!”

Just wait a second…

“Back to the theater! Back! There’s no place for you here in sports blogging! Get back while you still can!!”

Now look, I’m not going to hurt you… I just need you to go with me for a little while, then… What are you doing?

“I’m going to beat you with a hockey stick ‘til you go away.”

Whoa! Wait! You can’t do that!

“What, there are rules? There’s no rules.”

You’re a pacifist!

“Shit…”

I read an interview you gave a long time ago about how you always dreamed of playing at Ebbets Field, and how sad you were when they tore it down.

“I never said that.”

You didn’t?

“Nah…that’s just movie bullshit. I was a hockey fan.”

I knew it!

“I’m not going to get rid of you, am I?”

Only if the Caps win, pal.

Perhaps the cosmic tumblers will click into place for the Caps so that the hockey universe will open itself up for a few moments to show them what is possible. Or maybe the Caps will just say, “#@$% it!” And just go out and beat the Bruins themselves. It’s not like it would be an unusual occurrence. The Caps are 4-1-0 at TD Garden this season, regular season and playoffs. They have been remarkably stingy on defense, allowing only ten goals in the five games (nine in regulation time). On the other hand, the Caps have only 12 goals of their own in the ten games (11 in regulation time), but that could be indicative of a team playing smart, simple road hockey as anything else.

Some other things to know about the Caps at TD Garden…

Power Play: 2-for-11 (18.2 percent)
Penalty Kill: 11-for-12 (91.7 percent)

When scoring first: 4-0-0
When allowing first goal: 0-1-0

When leading after one period: 1-0-0
When trailing after one period: 0-0-0 (that’s right, in four games there was no scoring in first period)

When leading after two periods: 2-0-0
When trailing after two periods: 0-0-0

When outshooting Boston: 0-0-0
When outshot by Boston: 4-1-0

When Alex Ovechkin scores a goal: 0-0-0
When Alex Ovechkin doesn’t score a goal: 4-1-0

When Nicklas Backstrom registers a point: 1-0-0
When Nicklas Backstrom is held without a point: 1-1-0 (did not face Boston in regular season)

Goals Scored by Period: 1st: 2; 2nd: 5; 3rd: 4; OT:1
Goals Allowed by Period: 1st: 1; 2nd: 3; 3rd: 5; OT: 1

So what’s the profile here?

1. Score. The Caps won every game in TD Garden this season in which they scored at least one goal.
2. Get a lead. The Caps won every game in which they scored first.
3. Hold on for dear life. Those five Boston goals in the third period and one in overtime are troublesome. Two of the third period goals and the overtime goal have come in the three games at TD Garden in this series.

So who will this come down to?

Boston: Patrice Bergeron

Patrice Bergeron has done just about everything but score a goal. He has won 59 percent of his draws, recorded two assists, has only one giveaway, is fourth on the team in hits, and despite the defensive assignments he draws has been on ice for only three of the Caps’ 12 goals to date. But he does not have a goal in 16 shots on goal. If the Caps can shut him out one more time, this could end well.

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

We noted elsewhere that Ovechkin has stepped up in elimination games. However, that record includes a 2-2-4, minus-1, in Game 7’s. Even though he got the tying goal in Game 6, Ovechkin looked curiously disengaged from the action. He leads the team in points but has only two goals on 26 shots. He also does not have a game-winning goal against any team that made the playoffs this season (his three for the season to date is a career low). The last game winning goal he had in the playoffs was in the series-clinching Game 5 of last season’s opening round win over the New York Rangers. If he gets a goal in Game 7, we’re thinking it’s a game-winner.

In the end, kids spend countless afternoons dreaming of playing a “Game 7,” be it in baseball, basketball, or hockey. None of them dream of losing. All of them dream of hitting the home run, sinking the jump shot, or scoring the goal that wins the game and the series. On Wednesday, 40 young men get to live that dream. It is what we think Dale Hunter meant when he said “It’s a Game 7. Both teams are equal coming in. You have to have fun with it. You have to enjoy it.”

When those cosmic tumblers finally click into place, we'll discover this Game 7 will be a lot more fun for the Caps.

Capitals 3 – Bruins 2

Two Guys Sharing a Problem

Somewhere in an executive office suite high above 5th Avenue in Manhattan…

The Commish… Brendan, thank you for stopping by. I’m sorry we have to meet under these circumstances, but I wanted to enlist your assistance with this matter of World Peace.

The Director… Mr. Commissioner…

TC: Call me “Commish”

TD: uh, OK…Commish. But I’m not sure what I can do about world peace. I’m just the Director of Player Safety for a hockey league.

TC: Not “world peace.” “World Peace”… Metta World Peace.

TD: Is that a special kind of world peace, like in I-rakistan?...

TC:

TD: …Commish?

TC: No, not “world peace” as in the world, Brendan. “World Peace” as in a basketball player.

TD: You have a basketball player named “World Peace?”

TC: “Metta World Peace.” And his problem is one I think you have some familiarity in dealing with.

TD: Who names his kid “Metta World Peace?”

TC: No one…he named himself that.  He used to be Ron Artest, but that’s not the point.

TD: I’d give him five games for that alone.

TC: Now see, that’s why I need your special talents. We had an incident the other night when World Peace allegedly elbowed an opponent in a flagrant manner and rendered him concussed. We don’t have much occasion to deal with these kinds of transgressions, although I understand elbows and concussions are something of a regular thing in your league, am I right?

TD: It has been known to happen from time to time.

TC: Well, we have to do something about this, and we are facing a conundrum. As I said, we don’t generally have to deal with this sort of on-court violence. We have to deal more with criticism of referees, criticizing league management, unauthorized presence on the court, verbal abuse of opponents…

TD: You mean…

TC: Yes, Mark Cuban.

TD: And you think that our experience in dealing with on-ice incidents can be of help.

TC: Absolutely. I’ve been a fan of your work in video. Your calm, yet authoritative manner in explaining suspensions is very Sam Waterston-esque.

TD: Sam who?

TC: The guy on “Law and Order.”

TD: Oh, thanks.

TC: But getting down to business, walk me through your process in arriving at a decision to suspend a player.

TD: Process?

TC: Yes, the steps you take to identify, evaluate, and render a decision on an incident?

TD: We don’t have a process. I have three brothers, and they’re always calling me to ask, “Did you see that hit by so-and-so?” That’s when we get on it.

TC: Sort of like a “discipline committee.”

TD: Sure, like a "discipline committee." Then I look at the film. Well, I don’t exactly “look” at the film. It’s running while I surf Twitter to see who is saying what about whether the player should be suspended or how many games he should get.

TC: So, you depend on social media to assist in your thought process.

TD: I suppose. And if no one is saying much about an incident, I can always find some great places to eat from pics people post when they’re at some restaurant.

TC: Tell me about the videos. You are the first league to provide video explanations of your decisions. What goes into that?

TD: It happened by accident. Early in the pre-season I got a call from one of my brothers about this incident in a game between Calgary and Vancouver. Pierre-Luc Letourneau-Leblond…

TC: Who?

TD: Pierre Letour… we just call him PL3. Anyway, my brother says, “you gotta see this hit. Runs him from behind right into the boards.” So I get one of our interns to find me the video, and I head right to Twitter to see what’s happening. Except this is pre-season, and who cares about a pre-season game enough to tweet about it? So, I have to actually watch the video, and as I’m doing it, I’m walking through my mind about what is going on down on the ice, and I’m talking out loud. And my intern has his smart phone out taking a video of it.

TC: These kids today and their smart phones.

TD: You’re telling me. So I see him doing this, and I yell at him to shut that thing off. But he shows me his video of me talking and says, “Mr. Shanahan, if we add some PowerPoint to this, we might have something.”

TC: Smart lad.

TD: Yeah, I guess, but I don’t know PowerPoint from a shot from the point, so I said, “ok, kid…see what you can do.” Not five minutes later he’s back with me on video and what I guess was a PowerPoint thing at the end with the points we made about the player boarding the other player, the rule he broke, and how many games he should get. The kid puts the whole thing up on the league’s Web site, and all of a sudden, I’m a hit… so to speak.

TC: Interesting. But about the number of games you settle on. I’ve seen you give some players a game or two, but this incident with Raffi Torres… 25 games. I’m very interested in that. How did you decide on that many games?

TD: I didn’t. Not directly anyway. I was on my way to the office on the day I was going to announce a decision, and I stopped by a 7-11 for some coffee – there aren’t very many Tim Horton’s in these parts – and I bought a Powerball ticket. The first number was “25.” You might say it was my lucky day, although between you and me, Torres is a dickhead.

TC: I see. I must say, your methods are rather unusual, but I guess it suits your game. I’m not sure if we can apply them to our situation with World Peace. But I do appreciate your taking the time to visit with me.

TD: Sure, Commish. I hope it was of some help.

TC: By way of thanks, I’d like to give you a bit of advice, Brendan.

TD: What’s that, Commish?

TC: If a certain player in a certain town in Pennsylvania gets it in his head to change his name to “Ima Chosen One,” beware.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 6: Bruins 4 - Capitals 3 (OT)

The 2011-2012 season has been one of countless missed opportunities for the Washington Capitals, but yesterday might have been the unkindest of all. Facing a team on the brink of elimination in the second half of a back-to-back set of games with a jet-blast level roaring crowd behind them, the Caps just could not get one last goal and fell, 4-3, to the Boston Bruins in overtime. The loss sets up a Game 7 on Wednesday night in Boston.

Just as has been the case all series, neither team could impose its will for any sustained stretches, at least on the scoreboard. The teams alternated goals, starting with Rich Peverley’s strike in the sixth minute of the first period on a deflection of an Andrew Ference shot. Mike Green got the Caps even by faking Gregory Campbell to his stomach as he cocked his stick to take a slap shot. He pulled the puck around Campbell and let fly, beating goalie Tim Thomas on the short side.

After David Krejci put the Bruins up a goal once more late in the first period on a power play, Jason Chimera got it back with his first goal of the series, converting a goal-mouth feed from Nicklas Backstrom with 42 seconds left in the second period. The teams exchanged goals in the third period, Andrew Ference getting one of his own in the 12th minute of the period. Then, Alex Ovechkin tied things up by snapping a clean faceoff win by Nicklas Backstrom through Tim Thomas’ pads with 4:52 left.

That left things for overtime. In the fourth minute, the Caps were trying to break out of their own zone. Nicklas Backstrom fed the puck up ice, looking to hit…well, we’re not sure who, because it looked like there were nothing but Bruins in the middle of the neutral zone. One of them was David Krejci, and he picked off the pass 15 feet past the Caps’ blue line. Krejci fed Milan Lucic on the left wing, and Lucic found Tyler Seguin knifing between two Caps toward the Washington net. Neither Backstrom nor Dennis Wideman could close the gap on Seguin, who had goalie Braden Holtby at his mercy. Seguin dangled the puck in front until Holtby went to the ice, then lifted it over the sprawled goalie to send the series back to Boston one more time.

Other stuff…

-- Missed chances…Mike Knuble’s twisting shot that slithered by the post mid-way through the second period. Marcus Johansson’s almost open net to Thomas’ left that he couldn’t find before Thomas got the paddle of the stick in the way. Ovechkin ringing one off the crossbar in the first. And on and on…

-- This was a game that was going to come down to errors, since neither goalie looked especially sharp. Holtby looked very jittery early, and Thomas never did seem to look comfortable in his own crease. The Caps made more errors. In addition to the game-winner, Krejci’s goal – the second of the game – was a case of three Caps letting Krejci go when he dumped the puck off to Milan Lucic on the left wing. He was behind everyone for the return pass.

-- On Krejci’s goal, though, he had a much clearer path to the net after Patrice Bergeron set a pick at the Washington blue line that stopped Matt Hendricks in his tracks.

-- It’s a good thing Ovechkin scored a goal late. Because before that, he looked curiously disengaged from the contest. There was entirely too much aimless skating in loops away from the puck.

-- And yes, kids, that was a penalty for high-sticking on Ovechkin (we heard a lot of complaining about it in the arena). Players are responsible for their sticks, although one would think you’d need a step-ladder to high-stick Zdeno Chara.

-- The Caps did better at putting pressure on the Bruins in deep and crowding the net in this one, but they just couldn’t seem to get that last stick on the puck to shove it past Thomas.

-- Mike Knuble was not credited with a shot attempt. Funny, it sure looked like a shot attempt when he spun at the top of the crease mid-way through the second period and slid one just past the far post.

-- The nicest part of Jason Chimera’s goal wasn’t even Chimera scoring it. It was Brad Marchand at the other blue line waiting for his close-up after taking another dive off the three-meter board. Gadzooks! I am slain!! That guy dives more than the Red October.

-- We almost got through a game without Dennis Wideman being on the ice for a Boston goal… until 3:17 into overtime.

In the end, it stinks to be a Caps fan for 30 years after games like this. Why? Because this team in a sense looks like a lot of teams in the 1980’s. They put forth a good effort – and that certainly could be said for the Caps yesterday – but they just never seem to have what it takes to take that last step. A missed shot, a shot off a crossbar, an ill-timed mistake, an iffy penalty. For the Caps, there is never any “regressing to the mean” for such things. The weight always seems to fall to favor the opponent’s side of the scale. You can draw a bright line from those teams of Rod Langway, Mike Gartner, and Scott Stevens – hall of famers all (though Stevens earned his plaque for exploits with other teams) – to Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green.

The trick now is for this generation of Caps to erase that bright line and do something no Cap team has ever done – win a Game 7 on the road. OK, there has been only one (a 3-0 loss to Pittsburgh in 1995), but history can be made for this franchise.

Will it?

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Game 6/Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Bruins at Capitals, April 22nd

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

The Washington Capitals are in the unlikely position of being able to push the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins out of the playoffs with a victory in Game 6 on Sunday afternoon.

“What time is the game, cuz?”

It’s at 3 o’clock, Cheerless.

“You’re sure? None o’ that wimmen’s figure skating on TV, cuz?”

Nope…no ladies figure skating…hockey at 3 o’clock.

“No horse racing?”

Not to worry, cousin. The Kentucky Derby isn’t for another couple of weeks.

“None o’ them outdoor shows, like when a couple o’ guys sit in a boat for an hour pretending to fish?”

No fishing shows… no cycling shows… no darts… no travel shows.

“Not even golf?”

Nope… not even golf?

“Rats… I was kinda hopin’ to see the Red Wings and the Sharks on the links.”

Hopefully, the Caps will see their way clear to sending the Bruins to the golf course with a win on Sunday. It will be the 29th time in the history of the franchise that the Caps have had a chance to eliminate a team in the playoffs with a win. As you might imagine, their record is not too good. In their 28 send-‘em-home games to date, the Caps are 10-18. Most of those 28 opportunities have come at home, where the Caps are 7-12 in such games.

Since the lockout, the Caps have had seven send-‘em’home games, six of them played at home. They are 2-4 in those home games. And if there has been a common theme in those six games it has been an inability to score goals. Only once in the six games did they score more than two goals, last year’s 3-1 first-round series clincher against the New York Rangers. What else has been happening in those home elimination games?

-- It’s not as if the Caps have been leaky in their own end in these games – they have allowed only 15 goals in those six games, six of them coming in a 6-2 loss to Pittsburgh in Game 7 of the 2009 Eastern Conference semi-finals.

-- One problem has been getting behind the eight-ball early. In the six elimination games played at Verizon Center the Caps have been outscored by a combined 7-4 in the first period and allowed the first goal four times.

-- Special teams have been the undoing of the Caps in these games – 2-for-18 on the power play (11.1 percent), 17-for-22 on the penalty kill (77.3 percent). They allowed at least one power play goal in three of the four elimination game losses, while they blanked their opponents on the power play in both wins (having a total of only three shorthanded situations in the two games probably didn’t hurt).

-- Secondary scoring has been lacking in these games. Of the 11 goals scored by the Caps in the six games, Alex Ovechkin has four of them, and Alexander Semin has a pair. Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green have one apiece for a total of eight for the core four. Brooks Laich has a pair of goals, and Sergei Fedorov had one. That’s it.

-- Alex Ovechkin has stepped up in these games to the tune of four goals and three assists. He had a hand in seven of the 11 goals scored.

-- The Caps have enjoyed a whopping shot advantage in these six games, outshooting opponents by a 203-140 margin (33.8 – 23.3). But whereas the Caps had a 5.4 percent shooting percentage, opponents had a 10.7 percent shooting percentage. Twice the Caps had more than 40 shots in a game (and scored only three goals); twice the Caps allowed fewer than 20 shots (and allowed a total of three goals).

And it is this history that brings us to…

The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

Boston: Tim Thomas

Tim Thomas opened this series with a shutout in Game 1, but cracks have appeared in his fa├žade as the series has worn on. He has allowed nine goals on the last 79 shots he has faced (.886 save percentage). And now, he has to recover from a 4-3 loss by taking the ice less than 24 hours after that loss. Thomas played in four back-to-backs this season. He split the first two of those back-to-backs. In the first of them he lost the first game against Pittsburgh and won the second against the Caps on February 3-4. He repeated the results on February 14-15 when he lost to the Rangers, then beat Montreal. In the last two back-to-backs, Thomas dropped both ends, losing to the Islanders and Rangers on March 3-4, then dropping games to the Caps and Pittsburgh on March 10-11. His record has not been good in these situations lately, but it will be on his shoulders that the Bruins’ hopes now rest.

Washington: Jason Chimera

Jason Chimera has yet to score a goal in this series after potting 20 in the regular season. What hurts his production is having recorded only five shots on goal in the five games played so far. It is not so much Chimera, per se, but what he represents. It is the same problem that the Caps had last spring – getting any contributions from down the roster. In Game 5 the Caps did get some of that contribution from Mike Knuble, Troy Brouwer, and Jay Beagle. If Chimera can put up a crooked number, it might be a signal that the Caps are getting some scoring balance from their roster.

Keys:

1. Score first. Put the Bruins behind the eight-ball. They won’t give up, certainly. Champions don’t do that. But having to come from behind in a game they are playing less than 24 hours after a loss, plus travel, is just that much higher a hill to climb.

2. Pucks to the net. Thomas has proven vulnerable in the last three games. The Caps need to take advantage of this early and often. So far the Caps have been wildly inconsistent in this regard with shot totals of 17, 39, 32, 21, and 32 in the five games. They have nine goals in the three games in which they have gone north of 30 shots.

3. Cash in. The power play has showed signs of life after struggling quite a bit with flow early on in the series. Making the Bruins work on special teams is another way to take advantage of the back-to-back angle.

In the end, this could be the end for the Bruins. Road teams have won three games in this series, so no one should think this will be anything but difficult. But here is what it comes down to. In his four sets of back-to-back games this season, Tim Thomas is 2-6-0, 3.21, .880 in those games. In the second half of the back-to-backs he is 2-2-0, 3.24, .880. His save percentage in the first game of this latest back-to-back was .875. It is the kind of consistency the Caps can take advantage of to move on to the second round.

Capitals 4 – Bruins 3

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Eastern Conference Quarterfinals Game 5: Capitals 4 -- Bruins 3

The Washington Capitals will come home to host Game 6 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal matchup with the Boston Bruins in a position to close out the series. The Caps defeated the Boston Bruins on Saturday, 4-3, on a late power play goal by Troy Brouwer to push the Bruins to the edge of elimination.

Long before Brouwer scored it looked for all the world as if this would another nail-biting, chess-playing, low-scoring game that would hinge on which of goalies Tim Thomas for the Bruins or Braden Holtby for the Capitals would crack first. The teams played scoreless hockey for more than 31 minutes. In the 32nd minute, however, Alexander Semin found a loose puck in front of Tim Thomas, took a step to his right, and slid the puck through a maze of sticks and legs to break the scoreless tie.

Jay Beagle gave the Caps their first two-goal lead of the series a little more than three minutes later when he did a fine job of keeping a loose puck from exiting the offensive zone, stepped up, and rifled a shot that clicked off defenseman Johnny Boychuk’s stick and past Thomas.

Boston erased that two-goal lead in short order, Dennis Seidenberg halving the lead with just 2:39 left in the second period, and Brad Marchand batting a loose puck between Holtby’s legs to tie the game 28 seconds after Seidenberg’s goal.

Mike Knuble restored the Caps’ lead when he took advantage of some iffy rebound control by Thomas. Joel Ward fired a shot from the right point, and Thomas kicked the shot out hard to his right. Knuble was right there, having beaten Shawn Thornton to the loose puck and sliding it under the paddle of Thomas’ stick as the goalie was trying to dive across to stop the shot.

Johnny Boychuk scored Boston’s first power play goal of the series to tie things up one more time with 11:13 left. That left it up to Troy Brouwer, who with the clock ticking down toward the final minute took a John Carlson pass at the Bruins’ blue line, took a couple of strides, and snapped the puck over Thomas’ left shoulder for the game-winner.

Other stuff…

-- Bruin defenseman Joe Corvo sat out the last 28:44, and center Patrice Bergeron sat out the last 5:31 with injuries. Corvo took a shot from Marcus Johansson off the inside of his right knee, and Bergeron appeared to suffer from a series of hits, the last of which looked like a glancing blow with 5:31 left, but he went to the bench immediately and down the tunnel to the locker room.

-- Karl Alzner had a pristine score sheet but for one number – three. That was the number of blocked shots he had. It is the best indicator of the kind of game he had in 24-plus minutes of ice time. For what he is asked to do – play defense – he was the best player for either team on the ice.

-- Unless it was John Carlson. An assist on the Brouwer game-winner, four shots (seven attempts), three hits, three blocked shots. “Carlzner” was on top of its/their game this afternoon.

-- This is certainly a coming-out party for goalie Braden Holtby, but in its own way it is one for Jay Beagle, too. He had his first playoff goal/point, but he has been very solid in his own end in this series. He was not on the ice for any Bruin goals against (he has been on ice for only one goal against in this series), won eight of 13 faceoffs. He was 6-for-10 in the defensive zone.

-- Four goals…four different players. Nine points…nine different players. And there was that secondary scoring – Brouwer, Knuble, Beagle.

-- Alex Ovechkin had 12:47 of even strength ice time in this game… less than Nicklas Backstrom (17:22), Jason Chimera (13:59), Alexander Semin (15:24), Jay Beagle (13:50), Marcus Johansson (14:11), and barely more than Matt Hendricks (12:41).

-- Eighteen of Boston’s 37 shots and two of their three goals came from defensemen. The Caps have done a good job of tying up forwards from getting second-chance shots, but Tyler Seguin really looks snake-bit out there.

-- How much did playing with five defensemen hurt Boston late? Andrew Ference got caught too far to the middle of the ice and got caught crossing-over on his stride for just an instant, a moment Brouwer took advantage of to accelerate through the neutral zone and beat Ference to a shooting space once he had the puck.

-- Things happen when Dennis Wideman is on the ice. He was on for three goals for and two goals against in this game. He has been on ice for seven of the ten goals scored by the Bruins in this series.

-- And speaking of defensemen. You will remember the days when the thought was that Mike Green couldn’t find the defensive zone with a map and flashlight? He has been on ice for two goals against (one of them today on Boychuk’s power play goal) for the series.

-- The Caps had a power play goal, their third straight game scoring at least one with the man advantage. It is the first time the Caps scored power play goals in three straight games since they had power play goals in four straight from December 30th through January 7th.

In the end, the Caps have a chance to move to the second round for the third time in four years. That might not sound like a lot to Caps fans, since the Caps failed to move on any further in those other two years, but the Stanley Cup playoffs are a marathon, not a sprint. You have to win one series before you can win a second. In this one the Caps have been consistent in their approach to their play and look comfortable – or as comfortable as a team can be – playing with one-goal margins, for or against. And they have been getting reasonable secondary scoring – two from Troy Bouwer, one apiece from Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, Mike Knuble, and Jay Beagle. But it is first to four, not first to three, and it is time for the big guys to close things out and move on.