Sunday, April 08, 2012
Week 26… They’re in.
The Caps finished the regular season with seven consecutive weeks avoiding a losing week – four winning weeks and three .500 weeks (by standings points). Week 26 was a winning week, but it sure did not start as if that seemed likely. The Caps had an opportunity to close to within one point of the Southeast Division Florida Panthers with a Thursday date against the Panthers looming. The Caps stubbed their toes, however, against the Tampa Bay Lightning. It was a frustrating night in what might have become a frustrating season as the Caps scored first, then couldn’t hold a lead. They tied the game after falling behind, but then saw Steven Stamkos score two goals in the last 93 seconds (one an empty netter) to give the Lightning a 4-2 win. The game not only denied the Caps an opportunity to take the Southeast Division lead on Thursday but put the Caps’ tenuous playoff chances in further jeopardy. The Buffalo Sabres were tied with the Caps in standings points, but the Caps still owned the first tie-breaking advantage of more regulation plus overtime wins.
The Caps made short work of the Panthers on Thursday, jumping out to a 3-0 lead in the first 30 minutes. Well, it seemed that way at the time. Part of the problem was that the Caps lost another goaltender. With Tomas Vokoun already on the shelf with a groin injury, Michal Neuvirth went down with a knee injury when Marco Strum fell on his left knee, and Neuvirth fell backward in awkward fashion to the ice. That left things in the hands of Braden Holtby, who allowed a pair of goals wrapped around the second intermission. The Caps – and Holtby – stiffened from there, and Alexander Semin added an insurance goal with 1:02 left to give the Caps a 4-2 win, clinching playoff spots for both teams.
That left things to Saturday and the last day of the regular season. A Caps win and a Panther loss in regulation would give the Caps their fifth consecutive Southeast Division title. The Caps held up their end by jumping on the New York Rangers early. Alex Ovechkin scored on the Caps’s first shot on Ranger goalie Henrik Lundqvist 32 seconds into the game. Mathieu Perreault scored on the Caps’ second shot, a deflection less than two minutes later. The Caps added a pair – a goal by John Carlson and Nicklas Backstrom’s first since returning to the lineup after missing 40 games with a concussion – and stifled any attempts at changing momentum on the part of the Rangers. Brian Boyle got a cosmetic goal with less than nine minutes left, and the Caps had a 4-1 win to end the season. They would not win the Southeast, though, as Florida beat Carolina, 4-1, to win the division.
Offense: 3.33/game (season: 2.66/rank:14th)
Eight different Capitals shared in the ten goals for the week. The Alexes – Ovechkin and Semin – had two apiece. Semin led the Caps in scoring with a 2-2-4 week. Brooks Laich (1-2-3) and Roman Hamrlik (0-3-3) had three-point weeks for Washington. The offense overall was something of a two-edged sword. They did score ten goals, but they did it with only 74 shots on goal (13.5 percent shooting percentage). Getting fewer than 25 shots on goal per game was not a lot of sustained offensive pressure. And it was not entirely a “score effect.” The Caps were 4-for-22 in the first periods of games, 4-for-28 in the second period, and 2-for-24 in the third period. It was first period efficiency (18.2 percent for the week, 26.7 percent in the two wins) that helped the Caps to a winning week.
And no Cap is more efficient than Mathieu Perreault. He had a single shot in each of the three games, hitting on his only shot on goal in the Ranger game to end the week. His “one shot/one goal” bit is something he accomplished eight times in the regular season. If he had enough shots on goal to qualify, he would have won the shooting percentage title with 26.7 percent (Curtis Glencross won it with 23.6 percent).
Defense: 2.33/game (season: 2.76/rank: 21st)
The bottom line is allowing only seven goals for the week, and part of it was the Caps ability to deal with the added pressure of an injury-induced change in goal. Not only a change in goal, but a change from one style of goalie to one of an entirely different sort. The differences between Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby could not be more stark. Neuvirth is a stay-at-home, keep things calm, let the skaters do their thing sort of netminder. Holtby is like another skater out there, playing the puck, challenging shooters, and roaming all about. The relationship of skater to goaltender is very different, and getting used to the difference at the speed of hockey is not the easiest thing in the world to accomplish. That the Caps would allow only seven goals (one an empty netter) on 90 shots against is testimony to some rather adept team defense for the week under what could have been much more difficult circumstances.
But again, the performance was something of a two-edged sword. The Caps scored first in all three games, lost one lead and the game in one contest, almost lost a lead in the other, and managed to clamp down in the third game. The Caps still have lingering issues with closing things down when they have control of games.
This could have been the week when Michal Neuvirth cemented his position as number one goaltender with Tomas Vokoun out with an injury. It did not look good when he allowed three goals on the last 13 shots he faced (including two in 25 seconds late in the second period) in the 4-2 loss to Tampa Bay to open the week. He was on his way to redeeming himself for that performance with 13 saves on 13 shots against Florida when Marco Sturm fell on his leg and knocked him out of the game.
Braden Holtby came in and looked rather average to start. He allowed two goals on the first nine shots he faced against the Panthers, and a comfortable 3-0 lead at Verizon Center became a 3-2 nail-biter against a team with a knack for squeezing points out of extra time. But Holtby stopped the last five shots he faced in the third period, and the Caps had their playoff berth secured. Holtby was superb against the Rangers in the last game of the week, stopping 35 of 36 shots, including two shorthanded breakaways on the same Capitals power play in the third period in a 4-1 win. Holtby would appear to be the goalie who will start the playoffs for the Caps, and there is the attendant concern about a goalie with only 21 career NHL appearances. But in his last 16 NHL appearances, including his win over the Rangers, Holtby is 12-2-2, 1.61, .945, with three shutouts. Given the circumstances, things could be much, much worse with the team’s top two goaltenders out.
Power Play: 1-for-7/14.3 percent (season: 16.7 percent/rank:T-18th)
It was nice that John Carlson potted his first power play goal – his first goal of any kind – in more than six weeks, but otherwise the Caps’ power play was and is a mess. In 13:27 of power play time they managed only eight shots on goal. They allowed half that many in shorthanded shots on goal, three of them coming in the win against the Rangers on Saturday. But here is the disturbing part of the power play. Alexander Semin had 6:32 in power play ice time and did not have a shot on goal. Mike Green had 8:45 in power play ice time without a shot on goal. The silver lining was that the one power play goal the Caps managed broke a string of five games without one (0-for-14 in chances)
Penalty Killing: 7-for-8/87.5 percent (season: 81.6 percent/rank: T-20th)
The Caps have quietly resuscitated their penalty kill over the last dozen games. In going 7-for-8 this week the Caps finished the season 26-for-28 (92.9 percent) in those 12 games. Even the goal allowed this week was not so much a failure of the penalty killers as it was Michal Neuvirth not getting the five-hole closed on a slap shot by Teddy Purcell in the Tampa Bay loss (although one could argue that the penalty killers lost track of Purcell lurking along the left wing wall waiting for the play to develop). Part of the trick in having a successful penalty kill is not having to deploy it often and the Caps finished the season having not allowed as many as five power plays to opponents in 11 straight games.
Paying the Price:78 hits/50 blocked shots (season rank: 10th/6th)
That 40-hit game against Florida stands out for the week. Troy Brouwer, Matt Hendricks, and John Carlson accounted for almost half of them with six apiece. It was part of a pretty active week for Troy Brouwer, who finished with 10 hits for the week. Although he was not among the top hitters of the week, Nicklas Backstrom did have two and a roughing penalty for good measure to add a level of orneriness to his game as he comes back from his prolonged absence.
Faceoffs: 83-for-174/47.7 percent (season: 50.0 percent/rank: T-17th)
The Caps lost the week, lost each game, and lost two of three zones for the week. Only in the offensive zone, and only because of Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle going a combined 8-for-8, did the Caps manage to top 50 percent. Otherwise, Nicklas Backstrom was 21-for-51 (41.2 percent), but that might be a bit misleading. He was .500 in each of the offensive (11-for-22) and defensive (5-10) zones. Brooks Laich was 13-for-38, and his 34.2 percent did not come with caveats. He was 3-for-9 in the offensive zone (33.3 percent) and3-for-15 in the defensive zone 20.0 percent).
Second straight week at this number, and something else sticks out from the Florida game – 26 giveaways. Thirteen skaters and both goaltenders the Caps used in that game were guilty of at least one. And almost half of them came from players the team cannot afford to have coughing up the puck – Dennis Wideman, Mike Green, and the goalies as a pair had four each (Holtby had three, Neuvirth one for the goaltenders). The Caps were an equal opportunity employer in that game, credited with 13 giveaways when Neuvirth was in goal and another 13 with Holtby manning the nets.
You do what you have to do the way you have to do it. And when the Caps gagged on a chance to close the distance on Florida to start the week, they were left with having to win against Florida to at least keep their tie-breaking advantage over Buffalo. When they won, they had their playoff spot as the Sabres lost. And when the Caps beat the Rangers, and Ottawa lost, the Caps had seventh place and a spot opposite the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs. The Caps did not have a losing week in their last seven weeks, going 13-8-3 in the process. It was not closing the season with a rush, but it was enough to get in, where it is said “anything can happen.” We are about to find out what 2012’s version of “anything” means.
The Washington Capitals lit the lamp three times in the first period and rode that wave to a 4-1 win over the Rangers to jump past the Ottawa Senators into seventh place in the Eastern Conference to end the 2011-2012 season.
It did not take the Caps long to grab control of this game. Alex Ovechkin scored his 38th goal of the season 32 seconds in. Brooks Laich won a faceoff against Derek Stepan back to Ovechkin at the top of the left wing circle. Before Anton Stralman could close the distance on Ovechkin, the left winger rifled a wrist shot over Henrik Lundqvist’s left pad on the long side, and the Caps were off and running.
Not two minutes later, Mathieu Perreault deflected a drive by Roman Hamrlik down and around Lundqvist for a 2-0 lead. Two shots, two goals. When John Carlson connected on a power play slap shot with 1:47 left in the period, the chances for the Rangers to take this year’s Presidents Trophy with the league’s best record appeared now to hinge on a Vancouver loss against Edmonton Saturday night.
In fact, the competitive portion of the game was over by the first intermission, and the rest of the game was equal parts don’t suffer another injury (especially to a goaltender) and watching goalie Braden Holtby stymie the Rangers. Nicklas Backstrom also provided a bit of good news, getting a goal on a sneaky wrist shot after taking a feed down the slot by Alexander Semin. Brian Boyle closed the scoring and foiled Holtby’s shutout hopes in a rather humorous way, angling his 6’7, 244 pound body from behind the net with Mathieu Perreault – all 5’10”, 185…maybe – draped on him like a light wrap against the chill air before he stuffed the puck through Holtby’s pads. But that was all the Rangers would get, and thoughts could turn to the post season for both teams.
-- The Caps could have faced any of three opponents in the first round of the playoffs: the Rangers, New Jersey, or Boston. They finished the season 2-2-0 against the Rangers (both wins being of the three-goal variety), 1-1-2 against the Devils, and 3-1-0 against Boston (including wins in both games at TD Garden).
-- The Captain closed with a rush. With his goal in this game Alex Ovechkin finished with 27 goals in his 45 games since Christmas (a 49-goal pace) and 11 in his last 13 games (a 69-goal pace). It was, however, his first “minus” season (minus-8) since his sophomore year.
-- When John Carlson scored on the power play late in the first period, it was his first goal since February 22nd (also a power play goal) against Ottawa in a 5-2 loss to the Senators. It broke a 21-game goal-less streak for the defenseman.
-- Mathieu Perreault…one shot, one goal. It was the eighth time this season he pulled off that feat. He finished the season with a 26.7 percent shooting percentage. Unfortunately, he will not qualify for the league lead in that category. Curtis Glencross led the league with a 23.6 percent shooting percentage. His goal was the game-winner in this one and was his fourth game-winning goal of the season, tied with Nicklas Backstrom for fourth on the team.
-- Mike Green skated 19:50 in this game. It was only the fifth time in 22 games since returning from sports hernia surgery that he had less than 20 minutes of ice time. He also finished the season without a goal in his last 25 games. He was 0-1-1 over those games, but he was a plus-3.
-- The Caps had only 12 shot attempts in the last 34:02 against the Rangers after Nicklas Backstrom’s goal 5:58 into the second period.
-- In his last 16 NHL appearances, including this win over the Rangers, Braden Holtby is 12-2-2, 1.61, .945, with three shutouts.
-- Roman Hamrlik finished this game a plus-2 that allowed him to finish third in team plus/minus (+11). He was plus-15 in his last 23 games.
-- Allowing the Rangers three shorthanded shots on goal (plus another shot blocked), including a breakaway by Carl Hagelin, in a space of 30 seconds on a Caps power play mid-way through the third period is not a recipe for success. The Caps’ power play, despite the power play goal from John Carlson, is something of a mess right now.
-- The Caps finished the season earning points in 12 of their last 16 games (10-4-2). They were 6-1-2 in one-goal games over that span.
In the end, it was just the way one would want the Caps to finish the season. There was a good win at home and a solid win on the road. Seven different players accounted for the eight goals in the two games to wind up the season. The young goaltender stepping in as the Caps deal with adversity at the position bailed the team out when mistakes were made, and the team bailed the young goalie out when need be (see the “save” by Dennis Wideman on a shot by Ryan Callahan after Braden Holtby went far out to poke the puck off Brandon Prust’s stick on a shorthanded break).
But now it’s for real. The Caps will open the first round of the playoffs in Boston to face the Bruins, the defending Stanley Cup champions, and those three wins in four tries against the Bruins aren’t valid currency for success in the post season. The Caps will have to take the kinds of games they played in their last two and build on that if they are to get past the Bruins.