WASHINGTON CAPITALS GO DOWN WITH QUESTIONS ABOUND
(Video is from Game 7 2009, read why below)
Finally, in the end, the New York Rangers were simply too much for the Washington Capitals, and for the fifth straight year, the Alex Ovechkin era Capitals fail to make it out of the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Rangers won the tight best of seven series in New York last night with a hard fought 2-1 victory, and with the win, will now face their archrival, the New Jersey Devils for the right to play for Lord Stanley’s Cup against the winner of Phoenix Coyotes- LA Kings series.
The Capitals are yet again left to wonder what could have been if they had done just one or two things a little differently. The good news is that unlike last post season when the Caps were beaten badly, there isn’t much room to wonder, as 13 of the 14 games Washington was involved in were one-goal affairs.
The bad news is the fact that there is once again bad news to deal with when it comes to this organization and the playoffs.
However, in Game 7 the Capitals were as true to form as they have been throughout their previous 13 games in this year’s playoffs playing tough and never giving up.
Despite all of the talk about Rangers head coach John Tortorella abusing his top players in terms of ice time throughout the series, the Rangers appeared to have the better legs, and appeared to have more get up in their game for two of the three periods.
Heading into Game 7 the Capitals were 7-1 this spring when scoring first, and 0-5 when they did not. With a stat like that, this contest was seemingly over just 1:32 after it started when the Rangers top player, Brad Richards, scored to put his team on top 1-0. This forced the Caps to played catch up for the rest of the night and allowed the Rangers to contrrol the tempo of the game for most of the 60 minutes.
The goal was the first 5-on-5 pure goal for New York since Anton Stralman scored in the first period of Game 5, a span of 144-minutes and 52-seconds.
Already having the luxury of owning the last change at home, the early 1-0 lead allowed the Blueshirts to further contain Caps captain Alex Ovechkin, who registered just two shots on goal during the night. Combined with Ovechkin’s Game 5 performance at Madison Square Garden, in which the Great 8 was held without a shot for the second time in his career during the post season, it is easy to see why having home ice was such a huge advantage in this series.
That rings especially true when you consider that six of the seven games were decided by just one goal. However, what may haunt the Great 8 this summer is the two shots he did not connect on during the third period of play.
Ovechkin missed by just inches low to the far side after Nicklas Backstrom won an offensive zone draw with 13:47 left. Just minutes later, Matt Hendricks, the Caps MVP during the series, forced a turnover at the New York line and passed to Alexander Semin on the far wing. Semin hit Ovechkin with a feed in the high slot, but the captain’s slapper from 36 feet was nowhere near the open net.
Less than 30-seconds after the second Ovechkin miss, Rangers defenseman Michael Del Zotto scored to make it 2-0, which all but sealed the Caps fate. But the never say die Caps, who mad the post season on the next to last day of the regular season pulled to within one just 38 seconds later.
Roman Hamrlik, the Caps top defenseman during the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, got his team back to within a goal after he beat Rangers back stopper Henrik Lundqvist with a wrist shot high to the blocker side. The play was set up by a beautiful passing sequence from Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera, but Lundqvist and his teammates shut it down and the Caps never really threatened for the remaining 9:17.
Lundqvist showed last night in Game 7 why he is the top candidate to win the Vezina Trophy and a candidate for the Hart Trophy (MVP) earning the games No.1 star with 22 saves, many at point blank range during a furious Caps rush in the middle frame of the contest.
Washington was outshot in the contest 31-23, but managed to pepper King Henrik during the second period with a barrage of shots. Washington spent almost three consecutive minutes inside the Rangers zone but Lundqvist picked up his tired defense with save after save.
Lundqvist poke-checked Alexander Semin on a breakaway and used his right pad to shut the door on Mike Knuble, who had the best chance to score while standing all alone of the right doorstep. Lundqvist never gave the Caps many second chances, and used his suspect glove hand to kill potential second chances for Washington.
This is the fifth consecutive season the Capitals have qualified for the post season but have failed to make it past the second round, twice getting beat in round one. Washington is now 2-4 in Game sevens since the 2008 playoff debut of the Yong Guns better known as Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, and Mike Green. Last night’s loss was the first Game 7 loss away from the Verizon Center.
Washington needed seven games to defeat the Rangers in 2009, and used overtime of Game 7 in round one to send the defending Stanley Cup Champs packing this spring. Since 08, the Caps have now lost to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Montreal, and New York in a seven game playoff series.
The Rangers, who looked sluggish in losing two of the past three games in the series, returned to doing the little things that made them a No.1 seed in the East this season, and a favorite in the series. New York, who blocked 70 shots during the first three games of the series, but only 23 since, thwarted 19-potential Washington shots on goal in Game 7.
The Capitals who led the NHL during the post season with 293 blocked shots heading into Game 7, had just 15 last night. Ironically, it is the first time since a 3-1 Game 1 loss that Washington failed to block more than 20 New York shots. Shots like the Richards goal early in the contest were ones the Caps typically blocked many times, or forced New York shooters to miss during the series. But, the Caps were caught as the Rangers found their legs early in Game 7
HAS THE GREAT 8 GROWN UP?
Team captain Alex Ovechkin was uncharacteristically still dressed in his jersey when speaking to reporters after the game. The locker room does not open until 15 minutes following the final horn, and Ovechkin is usually showered in his towel and standing at the locker.
Not last night, as the Great 8 appeared to take this series defeat harder than the previous six he has endured. That may be a good sign for the Capital future. Ovechkin seems to have matured immensely during this post season. Both the Bruins and Rangers defended him with some of the best defenseman the NHL has to offer, and although he did not produce as many points as we are accustomed to seeing from him, he earned everything.
Ovechkin finished the 2012 post season with five goals and nine points. His play was physical and consistent, as he finished third in the playoffs with 58 hits. He never complained about diminished ice time when head coach Dale Hunter chose to go with a more defensive oriented lineup to protect the numerous one goal leads the Caps held throughout. Ovie averaged just 19:51 of total ice time, which was three minutes lower than any of the previous four post seasons.
If there is one criticism of Ovechkin, it is that regardless of who is coaching this team; he must learn to play better within a defensive system. The opportunities Ovechkin could gain from being on the ice when the Capitals force a turnover during a tight game are too numerous to imagine at times. For a player that loves streaking down the ice and facing the opposing goalies one-on-one , he’s not doing his team justice, or his numbers by sitting on the bench.
WHAT IS “IT”
The Capitals once again learned a hard lesson during this post season. This series should have never made it to a Game 7, if Washington played 60-minutes instead of 53.4 seconds in Game 5. The Capitals failed to finish off the Rangers, and it cost them the series. What it all boils down to is that the Capitals are still missing the “It” factor, but what is "it" that they are missing.
After last year’s sweep, many said it was depth, and secondary scoring. GM George McPhee took care of that and Washington had seven different players score the game winning goal during their seven post-season wins. You cannot get much more diverse and secondary than that.
The “IT” factor may be that the Capitals did not have the best forward, goalie, or defenseman on the ice for the biggest game last night. Those were Brad Richards, Henrik Lundqvist, and Michael Del Zotto for the Rangers. They did at times have the three best players for an entire game during parts of the series, but just simply not in enough games, and especially when the stakes were raised.
Somehow, this offseason George McPhee must figure where to find that big game player, who no matter the situation can step up. Despite his struggles and critics, the Rangers Marian Gaborik showed up when it mattered most starting in Game 3. Gaborik, who had just one goal entering the triple overtime affair, scored the game winner that night (off the stick of Richards I might add), and then scored in the next two games as well.
THE CORE 4 COULD BE 3 NEXT YEAR:
The Core 4 of Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Mike Green each produced a game winning goal during this post season, but it was just one. The four superstars accounted for 35 percent of the Caps anemic offensive output in terms of points, but only performed well together in a handful of games.
What the Capitals need were more games from the core like Game 4 last Saturday afternoon, a 3-2 series tying win. In that contest, Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green all scored. That game marked the 48th postseason game in the Capitals’ “Young Guns” era, since the foursome of Backstrom, Green, Ovechkin and Semin played in their first NHL Stanley Cup playoff game on the same night in April, 2008. It also marked the eighth time in those 48 games that Washington has gotten as many as three goals from the Young Guns in the same playoff game. The Caps are 7-1 in those games.Finally, the game marked the third time in those 48 games that any three different Young Guns have scored in the same playoff game. The Caps are 3-0 in those games.
Green was slow to get started this post season before finally scoring two goals, Backstrom disappeared after his Game 2 double OT winner in Boston, and got suspended for a game, in which the Caps still managed to win. Green played solid on defense, but looked tired towards the end.
Backstrom scored a huge goal in this series just after depositing Artem Anisimov into the ice. Alexander Semin, although he played a lot better, still seemed to forget that there were four other guys on the ice with him at times. I am not sure this post season changed my mind in terms of whether or not I want No.28 back in D.C next season.
The fact that Semin did perform and was a big part of the reason the Caps made the playoffs may indicate he is even more selfish than we imagined. He is after all and unrestricted free agent, and haven’t Caps fans and hockey experts been saying for two years now that Semin should be producing at this level all of the time?
A comfortable Alexander Semin in the first year of a new deal may be something to stay away from if you are the Washington Capitals and looking to change the culture in terms of accountability and individual responsibility on the ice. It is likely that the Capitals will opt to spend their money on restricted free agent Mike Green and allow Semin to walk. Do not be surprised to see him sporting a Red Wing on the front of his jersey next season.
WILL HUNTSY RETURN?
Dale Hunter has a very big decision to make and stated last night following the game that the time to discuss if he was returning next season as head coach was not now. In my opinion, it is unlikely that the Caps former team captain returns, especially when you consider the success of his junior club, the London Knights.
Hunter owns the team and his brother Mark is head coach, GM, and Vice President. He took over for Dale when Dale took over for Bruce Boudreau in late November as Capitals bench boss.
The only way Hunter returns is if coaching the Washington Capitals is truly his dream job, as he said. It is hard not to believe that Hunter did not find the drama of this year’s Stanley Cup Playoffs intoxicating enough to crave more. Even the hockey novice had to notice that Hunter was on to something with the Capitals and the way they played.
Washington was a great defensive team last season as well, posting a franchise low 2.33 GAA, but were not disciplined enough in the playoffs. When the Caps lost a game in the post season during the past four years, they seemed to panic, and abandon the game plan at times. This year, they stayed in the system and because of their consistency, were resilient and were able to bounce back and earn wins following losses like triple overtime game and the 6.6-second debacle.
One of the major cons for Caps fans is all of his family is in London, and Hunter loves helping young men reach their goal of playing in the NHL. As the owner of a highly successful OHL franchise, the money’s not bad either.
Despite losing the series to the Blueshirts, Hunter had to take great pride in the fact that six former Knights players were on the ice from both teams. They were Caps defenseman Dennis Wideman, John Carlson, and John Erskine, and from the Rangers, defenseman Dan Girardi and Michael Del Zotto. The lone forward is Rangers Left winger Brandon Prust.
On Friday night, the Knights beat the Niagara Ice Dogs 2-1 to win the Ontario Hockey League title.
London won the best of seven final 4-1 and claimed just the second J. Ross Robertson Cup in franchise history. They will open their quest for the Memorial Cup on Friday against the defending CHL champion Saint John Sea Dogs. The Knights won the Memorial Cup in its only other appearance when it hosted the tournament in 2005 with Dale Hunter behind the bench as coach.
There are other issues that George McPhee and Owner Ted Leonsis will need to address if the Capitals are going to return and be considered Cup contenders in 2013. These only scratch the surface to what should be an interesting off-season in the nation’s capital.
One question that was answered for the Washington Capitals during this post season is the immediate future of their goaltending situation. GM George McPhee may have to buy a few pairs of sunglasses because that future is very bright with Braden Holtby likely the starter heading into training camp next September with Michael Neuvirth as the backup.
The 22-year-old rookie was sensational for Washington this spring and nearly outdueled Tim Thomas and Henrik Lundqvist in back-to-back rounds. Wouldn’t it have been something to see Holtby square off against the 40-year-old future Hall of famer, Martin Brodeur?
Holtby, who on top of helping his team battle through two seven game series with stellar veteran like poise, also became a new father on Thursday when his fiancé gave birth to Benjamin Hunter Holtby. While his fiancé was delivering off the ice, Holtby was doing so on it. In 14 post-season games, Holtby was 7-7 with a 1.95 GAA and a .935 save percentage. His 429 saves were 50 more than the second place goalie, Mike Smith of Phoenix. He played in four overtimes, winning just one of them. He was the only goaltender to work over 900 minutes so far in the playoffs.
He has not lost back-to-back games in the NHL since Nov 2010, a span of 30-games including the playoffs. Although Holtby does not deserve to be sitting at home, hockey is a team game. The Capitals brass must be licking their chops in terms of what two young prized goalies can do, and bring an organization like the Capitals.
Goaltending is still very much a key component of success during the playoffs, and without it, regardless of how well you can score, your making tee-times in May instead of skating for the right to win the Stanley Cup. Don’t’ believe me; just ask the highflying Penguins and Flyers.
The bad news in the end is that the Capitals will not keep both Michael Neuvirth and Braden Holtby. Sure, they will have them both next season, but the reality is that trading one could net the missing piece to the Stanley Cup puzzle in Washington. McPhee and the Caps now have two first round picks in the June draft for the Semyon Varlamov deal last July. A deal made possible because McPhee watched Holtby progress with eight wins in final nine starts in a Caps uniform last year.
Damn I am going to miss Neuvy when he goes.
Be sure to check back with Capitals Corner later this week to see how the Capitals graded out for the 2011-12 season. In addition, log onto Blog Talk Radio on Tuesday evening as Capitals Corner delivers the season ending show. We will discuss in brief Game 7, the Caps needs for next season, as well as any possible free agents the Caps may be targeting.
WRONG GAME 7 AND MY PICK:
YES I'M AWARE THAT THE VIDEO ACCOMPANYING THIS ARTICLE IS FROM GAME 7, APRIL 28, 2009, BUT IT'S MY COLUMN AND THAT'S THE VIDEO I CHOSE.
BY THE WAY, I PICKED THE DEVILS TO WIN THE STANLEY CUP BEFORE THE PLAYOFFS STARTED, SO I WILL SAY DEVILS OVER RANGERS IN YET ANOTHER CLASSIC SEVEN GAME SERIES BETWEEN THESE TWO TEAMS. ANYONE REMEMBER THE 1994 GAME 7 OT THRILLER? IT WAS ONLY THE GREATEST GAME EVER PLAYED.