May 05, 2012

CAPITALS CORE ROCKS THE

The first Saturday in May always brings with it the hope and promise that somehow a longshot can overcome long odds and win. That happened on two occasions today as” I’ll  Have Another “did in Louisville Kentucky a short time ago, but earlier today at the Verizon Center in Washington D.C, another possible longshot won, and depending on how you view this Capitals team, continue to shock many in the hockey world.

The No.7 seeded Washington Capitals managed to bounce back and defeat the New York Rangers 3-2 after losing in triple overtime on Wednesday night, and to know the playoff history of the Washington Capitals franchise is to know that wining today’s game vs. New York was indeed done against all odds.

Nobody believed the Capitals could rebound after Marian Gaborik scored early Thursday morning, handing the Caps franchise and its fans another heartbreaking multiple overtime playoff loss. But these are the same hockey pundits that gave the Caps no chance to rebound after Boston’s Chris Kelly scored in overtime of Game 1 vs.to spoil what at the time seemed like a once in a lifetime playoff performance by rookie goalie Braden Holtby.

Nobody gave the Caps a chance after Washington failed to close the series out vs. the Bruins at home in Game 6, losing again in overtime. Finally, there was not a chance in hell that Washington could beat the defending Stanley Cup champions Bruins in Boston in a seventh game. For the most part, this was the same core group of Caps players, which blew a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens two years ago, and were swept by the Tampa Bay Lightning in the second round, both firsts in NHL playoff history for a No.1 seeded team.

However, if the Capitals were indeed going to rebound today and defeat the Rangers, they would need their core players to step up and lead by example, and luckily, for them that is exactly what happened.

The group, which used to be known as the “Young Guns” several seasons back, has grown a tad older and is now affectionately known as the Core 4.

The fantastic four in case you do not know is Alex Ovechkin and Semin, as well as Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green. This has not exactly been a stellar year for the core of the Caps hockey team. The Great 8 had a career worst 65 points, while No.19 and No.52 didn’t even play in 82 games combined this season, 74 to be exact. No.28, who is an unrestricted free agent once the season ends, finished tied for his second worst career (excluding rookie season) year in terms of career points (54). It is no coincidence that because of these facts, the Caps were a seventh seed and didn’t qualify for the playoffs until the 81st game this season.

But today, the core four stepped up, and delivered a big-time win in a big-time game for the Capitals and their fans. They combined for 14 of the teams 26 shots, and scored all three Washington goals.

The man considered the actual core of the group got the Caps on the board first with the all-important first goal of the game. Team Captain Alex Ovechkin “capitalized” on a rare playoff mistake by rookie Chris Kreider and fired a shot off the glove of Rangers goalie Henriq Lundqvist to give the Caps a 1-0 lead 12:43 into the opening period. Kreider seemed to panic along the sideboard and failed to turn his head while delivering what was either a clearing attempt or errant pass, whatever it was, Ovechkin just one timed the blunder past Lundqvist for his fourth goal of the post season. The goal also marked the 29th of Ovechkin’s career and places him just one behind Peter Bondra (30) for first on the Caps all-time playoff goal scoring leaderboard.

The goal was huge for Ovies teammates, who were clearly outplaying a sluggish Rangers team to start the game. Washington outshot the Rangers 14-3 during the first period, and played with an energy the Rangers simply could not match. The Capitals did not out hit New York for the game (24-33), but Washington laid some timely body checks to start the contest.

Statistically speaking, the goal was huge and continued a trend of regular success when scoring the game’s first goal this season.

The Capitals have been notorious for winning games during the past two season when allowing the games first goal, however, like the rest of the this post season, much has changed in terms of how Washington wins hockey games.

Last season the Capitals led the NHL in wins (23-19-5) when allowing the opposition to score first. With a 13-25-2 record this season, the Caps were not nearly as sound when allowing the game’s first marker and were much better playing with a lead this season. Washington was 29-7-6 when scoring the game’s first goal, and have carried that play better with a lead mentality into the post season. With Saturday’s win, the Caps are 6-1 this spring when scoring first, their only loss came in Game 1 of the Bruins series, when the first goal of the game was the only goal of the game, which was scored in overtime.

The Rangers have head coach John Tortorella, and that means with only three first period shots and sluggish play on defense, there was going to be some adjustments made during the first intermission. Even if that meant an ass chewing the Blueshirts would not soon forget, they would most assuredly play better in the middle stanza. And that they did.

The Rangers came out and began to take the play to the Capitals. New York began to dominate in the corners and behind the net, playing the type of hockey that earned the top seed in the Eastern conference this season. The play started when Alex Ovechkin failed to properly block (surprise-surprise) a shot by Dan Girardi from the blue line. When the puck reached the crease area, Brooks Laich failed to corral the loose puck in front of Braden Holtby with his skates, and Artem Anisimov patiently allowed the Caps rookie net minder to make the first move, and then when he did, stuffed in the games tying goal.

Washington would not be kept down for long, as the Rangers Anisimov would again be apart of the highlight reel, but not in a good way this time. The next member of the core four to cash in for the Capitals would be Nicklas Backstrom.

The Caps top line center would put his stamp on the go-ahead goal from start to finish. The Swede began the play when he went to retrieve a loose puck in the corner, Anisimov followed Backstrom into the corner with the intent of delivering a hit, but the Caps center turned and caught the Russian off guard, planting the Rangers surprised center onto his “ice” with the simple flick of his shoulder into Anisimov’s chest.

Backstrom threw the puck back behind the Rangers net and around to Jason Chimera, who in turn found Backstrom again who had skated just inside the lower faceoff circle to the left of the Rangers net. The Swede took the perfect pass from Chimera and beat Lundqvist high over his right shoulder to give his team a 2-1 lead. Backstrom hasn’t scored a goal since he tallied the double overtime winner back in Game 2 of the Boston series. The tally marked the 14th career playoff goal for No.19.

As great as Jeff Schultz played today, he had nine of the teams 18 blocked shots at one point, he and his blue line partner Dennis Wideman just could not resist allowing a head-scratching goal during the contest. Saturday’s rendition occurred with just 3:17 to play in the second period. There is plenty of blame to go around, including Braden Holtby, who was not paying attention to the linesman making the call. Both Holtby and Wideman failed miserably in communication and the Caps are lucky the play cost them just one goal. That is how bad it looked.

It all started when the Rangers threw a clearing attempt the length of the ice, and the linesman closest to the puck initially signaled icing, which caused Braden Holtby to raise his arm, which lets his defenders know the race is on to touch the puck for the whistle stop. But the linesman on the other side of the ice waved the icing off, which Holtby did not see, regardless, Jeff Schultz and Dennis Wideman lost the race to guess who? If you said Artem Anisimov you would be correct, and he threw the puck in front of the net where standing where he was on Wednesday to score thee game winner was Marian Gaborik who buried the puck to tie the game.

The majority of the blame on the play has to go to Dennis Wideman, who did not communicate with Schultz, and it was Wideman’s glove that touched the puck to nullify the icing. The duo is now a combined minus-14 during the 2012 post season but somehow, is still left as a defensive pairing on the ice together.

 Wideman was on the ice for every Bruins even strength goal during the first round.

The Capitals would not be denied on this day, as the third member of the core four stepped up to score the game winner. With just 6:15 to play in the game, the Caps were given a rare late playoff game power play when the Rangers Carl Hagelin slashed Washington defenseman John Carlson, breaking his stick.

When Mike Green is playing well, the Caps power play regardless of stats should be considered dangerous, and right now, Mike Green is playing well. The play began when Rangers captain Ryan Callahan got knocked down along the boards and lost the puck, which went to Capitals defenseman Dennis Wideman.

The goat from New York’s tying goal slid the puck over to a wide-open Green, who fired a low unblockable shot past Lundqvist from the right circle. "I didn't see the puck," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist said. "I was pretty much just guessing where it was going."

Despite not getting a goal or point in the contest, the fourth member, of the core four, Alex Semin played well today. He fired four shots, played hard, and did not commit any stupid stick penalties.

According to Stats LLC,  it was the 13th time in their Capitals careers, (all were first-round draft picks) that Ovechkin, Backstrom and Green scored in the same game, but the first in any postseason. Washington's record in those games is 13-0, and the trio last tallied together on Oct. 30, 2010. Just for the record, the Capitals dealt the Calgary Flames a 7-2 loss that night as Alex Semin also tallied that night. The four combined to score five goals and 13 points on the night. Ahhhhhhh-the good ol’ days.

The Capitals will head back to New York to play the pivotal Game 5 as the series now becomes a best of three. In virtually the same situation during the Boston series, the Caps won Game 5 in Boston, lost Game 6 at home, and of course won Game 7 in overtime to get to this point.

During the Ovechkin era, the Capitals are 4-2 in game fives, with five of the six contests being played in D.C. Today’s victory marked just the second win for the Capitals at home during the 2012 playoffs. When you consider Washington entered the post season with the worst road record of the 16 teams to qualify for the 2012 playoffs. The fact that the Caps are 4-2 on the road, and 2-3 at home this postseason, is indeed a shocking turn of events.

HOLTBY-HOLTBY-HOLTBY-HOLTBY

Rookie Braden Holtby continues his quest to become the fifth rookie in NHL history to lead his team to a Stanley Cup win. He wasn’t needed much on Saturday as the Blueshirts fired just 20 shots on goal in Game 4. Holtby was sharp at crucial times. With less than two minutes to play in the game, Holtby stopped a shot from the point that he never saw. He was able to make the stop by playing tall, staying on his feet, and by staying with the solid fundamentals that’s gotten the 22-year-old this far.

Only Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward and Annti Niemi have led their team to Stanley Cup victories as rookie net minders. Holtby is now 6-5, with a 1.94 GAA, and a 933 save percentage. Only Coyotes goalie Mike Smith (34) has stopped more shots than Holtby (335). But the Western Canada native has played 741-minutes and 24-seconds of net in the playoffs, which is almost 25 minutes more than Henrik Lundqvist of the Rangers who is second. Holtby has not lost back-to-back decisions in 27 NHL starts, and consequently, the Capitals have not lost back-to-back games since March 22-23, when they lost to the Flyers and Winnipeg Jets. However, the Capitals still earned two points as one loss was in overtime, and the other came during a shootout.

BLOCK PARTY:

One of the major reasons why the Caps got past the Boston Bruins, and are tied 2-2 with the Rangers is blocked shots. During the first round, Washington used as a vital part of keeping the number two goal scoring team during the regular season from scoring much more than they did. It also helped rookie net minder Braden Holtby, as his team prevented him from seeing more shots than he did. For the record, Holtby made more first round saves (248) than any other goalie in the playoffs so the true effect of the Caps shot blocking ability in round may never be known.

However, no team sells out more blocking shots than the New York Rangers do.

During the regular season, the Rangers sold out 1,338 times, which was the most by any team that qualified for the post season. The Capitals were not far behind with 1,302, which was sixth during the regular season. During the playoffs, it is no coincidence that both are ranked first and second respectively, but following today’s game, it is the Capitals that are first with 244 post-season blocks compared to the Rangers 232.

In Game 4, the Capitals dominated the shot-blocking category with 26, and often criticized Caps blue liner Jeff Schultz dominated with nine of those 26. In fact, Schultz blocked more shots in Game 4 than the Rangers did as a team. New York blocked just seven shots in Game 4, and Wednesday’s long contest may have something to do with that.

Although they allowed just three goals today, the Rangers defense could be beat up and tired, and selling out after Wednesday may have been a lot tougher to do on Saturday than most could imagine. During Wednesday’s triple OT thriller, the two teams blocked 81 combined shots, many with unprotected parts of their bodies. The Rangers played most of the three OT contest with a group of four defenseman. The Rangers top four blue liners of Ryan McDonagh (53:17), Marc Staal (49:34), Dan Girardi (44:26), and Michael Del Zotto (43:33) averaged 47-minutes and 25-seconds of ice time during the contest. In contrast, the Capitals never had just one player hit the 40-minute mark. Dennis Wideman played 40:42 of ice time, which is far less than that of the top four Rangers d-men.

It is not as if the Rangers were lying out and affecting the Caps accuracy in Game 4, which has been an issue at times during the postseason. Washington missed on just six shots today, and the teams combined to miss just 13 shots total.

UNSUNG PLAYOFF MVP:

Despite having just one goal and two points (plus-1) during the 2012 post season, the Capitals wouldn’t be this far without the play of Matt Hendricks.

In Game 3, Hendricks was the best all-around player on the ice. In 32:05 of ice time, Hendricks led both teams with 11 hits, led Washington team with six shots, and won 12 of 17 face-offs. In Game 4 on Saturday, Hendricks was again the pillar of consistency, adding two more hits, and winning all nine of his face-offs. Hendricks blocked one shot during the contest, and is now 19-for-26 (73 percent) on the red dot during the past two games.

Speaking of face-offs, the Capitals, who have been hovering around 50 percent throughout the playoffs finally, took a clear-cut edge in Game 4.

With Hendricks help, the Capitals won 30 red dot draws (55 percent), and have now won 383 draws during the playoffs, the most in the playoffs. They are ranked second in faceoff wins of the remaining teams in the post season. Only St. Louis is ranked higher, but trailing the LA Kings 0-3 in their series, the Blues do not appear as though they will be around much longer this spring.

IT’S NOT ALL GOOD NEWS:

All has been quiet from the offices of NHL Warden Brendan Shanahan, but that could all change in the blink of an eye tomorrow. The reason is for a hit that Alex Ovechkin (click here for video) placed on Dan Girardi during the second period during Game 4 on Saturday. The hit drew a charging penalty, and will get a good long hard look from the league office. Ovechkin’s skates clearly left the ice before the hit, which raised the possibility that a suspension could happen. Here is a huge surprise (sarcasm),NBC’s Mike Milbury says the hit was unacceptable  and deserves a fine or suspension, but Keith Jones says it was a defensive move and the charging penalty will suffice.

Girardi said following the game, “My heads kinda of there, and he hits it.” Rangers head coach John (F*&^%$) Tortorella lasted all of about 30 seconds during his post-game news conference before getting up and leaving. He refused to answer any questions about the officiating during the game.

Ovechkin has twice been suspended during his career for hits considered illegal, and Nicklas Backstrom has already served a one game suspension during this year’s playoffs for a cross check to the face of Bruins forward Rich Peverley at the conclusion of Game 3.

Ovie was last suspended this past January when the NHL deemed his hit on Penguins defenseman Zbynek Michalek excessive (click here for video), and following the suspension Ovechkin declined the NHL’s invitation to the All-Star Game.

CAPITALS CORNER ON BLOG TALK RADIO:

Capitals Corner will keep you updated with any breaking news. Log onto Blog Talk radio on Monday @ 6:30 for Capitals Corner Pre Game Playoff edition as I bring you all the highlights and lowlights from Game 4. I will also give you the “3 Keys” to a Game 5 victory and see which player must become the “Z-Factor” if the Caps are to head home up-3-2 in the series.

 

 

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