Can the Maturing Caps Take the Next Step?
By Scott Lowe
Maybe, just maybe we can finally throw the past out the window as it pertains to this year’s edition of the Washington Capitals. Don’t roll your eyes. I said, “maybe.”
Twenty-four hours from now we’ll either be saying, “These young Caps have matured, learned from their past failures and are now as legitimate a Stanley Cup contender as there is this year in the NHL.”
Or we’ll be saying, “Same old Caps; now the pressure’s back on them.”
So far it in this year’s Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers it appears as though this Washington team has taken its embarrassing first-round loss to Montreal a year ago to heart – and to head. Under the guidance of garrulous head coach Bruce Boudreau, the high-octane Caps of last season have turned into a responsible, defense-first team that still has the firepower to turn a game on its ear offensively in a moment’s notice. The result is a 19-4-1 record that includes more than a dozen one-goal victories – many of the overtime variety – dating back to late February.
Some might argue that Washington had a chance to put away the Rangers for good in Game 3 Sunday after jumping to a 2-0 series lead, but laid their usual Easter playoff egg in falling 3-2 on a late Brandon Dubinsky goal. While that decisive goal had all the earmarks of a typical heartbreaking pinball playoff marker off of a Caps’ defenseman, Washington fought back twice to tie the contest in a heated battle and just fell a little bit short. They gave a true playoff effort and lost, unlike last year when they didn’t show up for the first 10 minutes, falling behind 2-0 and never recovering in a Game 5 loss vs. the Canadiens (after rolling to a 3-1 series lead). Their effort could not be questioned this time around.
Wednesday’s improbable and exhilarating comeback against New York started out very similar to Game 3 as the teams battled to a scoreless tie through 20 minutes for the fourth time in the series. It was at that point that the Caps lapsed into some of their past playoff habits, becoming deflated after allowing a freakish bankshot goal from behind the net and ultimately surrendering three second-period markers – two in a span of seven seconds – to face a 3-0 deficit heading into the third period against a team that had gone 29-0 this year when leading after two.
That’s when a strange transformation took place. Most observers expected the old high-flying Capitals to emerge from the dressing room looking to turn the game into a track meet and hoping to catch lightning in a bottle. That style was sure to allow the Rangers many chances, and just one more tally certainly would put away the game for New York.
Instead, what happened was that Washington stuck to its playoff mantra – drive hard toward the goal, get pucks to the net and create distractions for the goalie. The next thing you knew, within four minutes, the Caps got an ugly force-in goal from the usually aesthetically pleasing Alexander Semin, a deflection in tight by rookie Marcus Johansson and a near-miss by a hard-driving Mike Green on a 3-on-2. It was 3-2 New York, the air had been let out of the building (no, as a matter of fact, we can’t hear you now) and even the most pessimistic Washington supporter could sense that the tying goal was right around the corner.
And then it happened. With 7:53 to play and just moments after an effective Caps’ power play had failed to yield the tying goal, two mature-beyond-their-years rookies teamed up on a playoff–style goal as John Carlson’s laser from the left point glanced off of Johansson’s pants and past stingy Swedish netminder Henrik Lundqvist to deadlock the game.
A fortunate bounce? Yes. But as has been written here and in columns throughout the blogosphere thousands of times over the past few years in regards to the Capitals, if you get pucks to the net and create traffic in front, good things will happen. And, when you are as talented as Washington, if you can commit to that style, GREAT things will happen.
From that point on, throughout the remainder of regulation and both overtime periods, Washington controlled play at both ends of the ice. The Caps created numerous scoring opportunities – including an Alex Ovechkin breakaway in the first overtime – and allowed New York very little time and space in either end.
Washington concluded the contest with a 53-39 shot advantage, and guess how the Caps’ final goal was scored? On another fortunate bounce after Jason Chimera drove hard to the outside, flipped the puck toward the net and continued driving his legs into the blue paint (Sound familiar?). Miscommunication between Lundqvist and Marian Gaborik left the puck on Chimera’s stick for a slam dunk to win it.
“They’ve been buying in since December,” Boudreau said earlier in the series. “They just want to win. They’ve all said it to a man. The important thing is that they get to experience success.”
Think back to December and the eight-game losing streak as Boudreau tried to transform his team to a more defensive-oriented unit. The successes came slowly, but as the results improved the team’s confidence and ability to execute improved to the point that the Caps closed the regular season as the hottest team in the East.
Now the success is starting to happen when it counts. The bounces that always seemed to go the other way are starting to go in Washington’s favor, indicating that the coach has been right all along and that this is the only style that can take this team deep into the postseason.
The Caps get another opportunity to show a national-television audience what they’ve learned and how much they’ve matured when they attempt to eliminate the Rangers on Saturday. “Bruce has mentioned that the fourth game is the hardest to win no matter what,” gritty winger Matt Bradley said. “You saw it last night with Vancouver. I’m sure they figured that they’d come back home and have an easier game and win it. Teams that are desperate and have their backs against the wall are the hardest to play against. I expect nothing different from the Rangers tomorrow. They will have their best game and play their hardest, and if we’re not ready it will be a tough game and we’ll lose.”
Added veteran defenseman Scott Hannan: “You have to take them one game at a time. You have to win the last one. It’s not what happens in the first few games, it’s what happens in the last one. We know we’ve got to come out Saturday and play a big game, come out and feed off the energy, play the way we can, stay out of the box – all those little things that we’ve been doing when we win we’ve got to do here.”
Neither team has managed to score in the opening period during this series. Last year, holding the same adavtage vs. Montreal at home, the Caps came out flat, with Ovechkin’s top line allowing two Habs' goals in its first four shifts. It seems as though with Washington’s new-found success in closing out one-goal victories, a strong start and an early goal could be enormous for the Caps in Game 5.
“It’s a new year, a new series,” Ovechkin said. “If you remember all the bad things, that’s going to be bad for you. I think tomorrow the first 10 minutes is going to be very important for us and for them, too.”
Added Boudreau: “Both teams are being very aggressive, but also very conscientious. In the end it comes down to who makes the last mistake at the wrong time. You have to have a short memory. I guarantee that the New York Rangers have forgotten about (Game 4) like we forgot about Game 3. Everything is brand new tomorrow. Everyone is starting brand new, one-on-one, team versus team.”
Well, coach, maybe if everything truly is brand new, those old Capitals Easter playoff ghosts won't show up this time around. One way or another it will be either celebration or despair in Washington 24 hours from now.