July 6, 2015

Despite familiar collapse, this season was a success for the Caps

New year, new coach, same result. The Washington Capitals saw their season come to an unceremonious end on Wednesday with a Game 7 overtime loss to the New York Rangers and once again, it felt far too early.

But for all the similarities to the team’s past failures, there were clear signs of progress over the course of the season and the playoffs.

It may not feel that way right now. The Caps lost to the Rangers in the playoffs for the third time in the last four seasons despite having a 3-1 series lead. It is the fifth time the Capitals have lost a series when up by 3-1 and the tenth time the team has lost when leading by two games. The Caps still have not made it past the second round since 1998, well before Alex Ovechkin came to Washington.

Yet, this is also the team that failed to make the playoffs just one season ago. In his first season as coach, Barry Trotz made the Caps into a hard-nosed, balanced team. He took this underachieving roster and made them into playoff contenders in just one year.

Rather than meddle with all aspects of the game and every position as Adam Oates did, Trotz delegated responsibilities to trusted and respected assistants such as Mitch Korn, who transformed Braden Holtby into one of the league’s top netminders, and Todd Reirden, who helped the Caps  improve defensively from 21st in the NHL with 2.79 goals against per game to 7th with 2.43.

Under Trotz’ tutelage, Alex Ovechkin became a more defensively responsible player, improving last season’s comical plus/minus of -35 to +10 in the regular season. Analysts were absolutely effusive in their praise of the Great Eight throughout the season saying he was a more complete player and a better leader. Clearly he was and that’s an important step.

Rookie playmakers also flourished under Trotz. In his first season with the team, Tom Wilson was locked in a closet by Adam Oates and given less than eight minutes of ice time per game. That’s less ice time than notable stars such as Ryan Stoa, Casey Wellman and Chris Brown. It’s even less time than Oates gave Martin Erat despite how clearly he distrusted Erat.

Under Oates, there was seemingly no plan in place for what to do with Wilson or how to develop him and we saw no noticeable improvements in his first season because of it.

That was not the case this year with Evgeny Kuznetsov and Andre Burakovsky. Both players cycled up and down the lineup. Both saw their time in the press box and Burakovsky was even reassigned to Hershey. Yet, there was a clear focus on developing them. Both rookies played key roles with the Caps in the postseason, especially Kuznetsov, who had a breakout performance with five goals and two assists.

The bottom line is that this is a team that missed the playoffs last year with a coach and general manager making decisions based solely on the present with little regard for the team’s future. This year, not only did the Caps develop some of their top players for the future, they also took the Presidents’ Trophy winners to overtime in Game 7 in the second round.

One favorable bounce of the puck could have the Caps facing Tampa Bay right now. That’s all that separated them from the conference final.

As much as it may sting now, overall this season was a clear success. The reason it doesn’t feel that way is because of how the team lost. Losing yet another 3-1 series lead is hard to swallow, especially since the Caps came 101 seconds away from winning Game 5. Seeing Henrik Lundqvist on his way to the bench lifting his arms in triumph before he could get there will be an image that haunts Caps fans for years to come.

Trotz, however, was not the coach when the Caps were swept by Tampa Bay in 2011. He was not behind the bench when Montreal pulled off the unbelievable upset in 2010. No one with the team now was on the roster for the Caps’ collapse against Pittsburgh in 1992 or the Easter Epic in 1987.

In terms of this team, right now, this team showed progress.

Consider this: if back in October someone had said the Caps would take the Presidents’ Trophy winners to seven games in the second round of the playoffs, wouldn’t that have been considered a success?

Washington Capitals Second Round Game 7 Recap: Heartbreak, thy name is Caps

The Washington Capitals will not advance to the Eastern Conference Finals.

A rebound goal by Derek Stepan 11:24 into overtime lifted the New York Rangers over the Caps 2-1 and into the ECF against the Tampa Bay Lightning while the Caps will head back to Kettler Capitals Iceplex to clean out their lockers and dwell on the missed opportunities of Games 5 and 6.

They should not dwell on “what could have been” in Game 7 because Game 7 was a classic, in every sense of the word.

The Caps and Rangers played even for 60 minutes, with a first period goal by — who else — Alex Ovechkin — and a second period equalizer by Kevin Hayes the only transgressions against the ledgers of Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist, who were both superb yet again.

So of course, more time was needed to settle it. As if anyone concerned could have imagined any other scenario.

Much has been written, and much more will be added, to the storied and sordid history of the Caps not being able to close out playoff series. The loss to the Rangers makes the 10th time in franchise history this franchise has been unable to win a series they led by two games. They are 0-5 now in Game 7 after leading a series three games to one.

When history looks back on this series, it will be painted as just another blown series for the Caps, the perennial “choking dogs.” Lazy sportwriters will dwell on it, in fact, thinking it will make them look cool, smart or funny. They are none of those things.

The Capitals played Game 7 with total effort from start to finish. It was simply one of the best games in these playoffs, let alone the series. They lost in overtime to the team with the best record in the league and the best goalie (for my money) on the planet. They played these Rangers toe-to-toe the entire series and lost to the better team.

No choke. No curse. No conspiracy.

The Rangers were simply the better team. But it wasn’t by much. In fact, the narrowest of margins.

There will be plenty of folks that will mock these words, using bravado and arrogance to deflect their disappointment that the Caps — these Caps, not the Caps from 1987, 1992, 1995 or 2010 — lost in the most agonizing of fashions. It’s always hard to accept defeat.

But this version of the Washington Capitals proved that when they play with complete effort for 60 minutes they can play with the best team in the league, losing only on the bounce of a puck.

For the long haul, there are lessons to be learned, and holes to fill. Young players got a tremendous amount of particular experience. The veterans found out how Barry Trotz manages his team in the playoffs.

But for now, there is heartbreak.

Hockey is hard.  If it were easy, everyone would win a Cup. Twenty-nine teams lose every year. Be disappointed, but keep the faith. Next season will come sooner than you think.

OPINION: Caps face date with sad destiny in Game 7

Even before those in this area had heard of the men that go by the names Ovechkin, Backstrom and Trotz, the stigma was firmly in place.

A lost 2-0 series lead to Pittsburgh in 1996 led Washington Post columnist Tony Kornheiser to label the Washington Capitals as “choking dogs,” a notion that has become all-too-familiar for one of hockey’s most loyal fanbases. It seemed for a bit as if those fans would be rewarded with a monumental win this past Mother’s Day, only to leave Verizon Center shaking their heads and collectively asking themselves  — and each other — one thing.

How can this be happening again? [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Second Round Game 6 Recap: Late rally not enough as Rangers force Game 7 with 4-3 win

Down 4-1 in the third period, the Washington Capitals nearly dug themselves out of a deep hole. With nine minutes and change left, they pulled back within one goal of the New York Rangers but a late power play was squandered and the Caps could not find the equalizer. In falling to the Rangers 4-3, the Caps are forced into playing their second Game 7 in as many series this postseason Wednesday night back at Madison Square Garden.

[Read more…]

Washington Capitals Second Round Game 2 Recap: Rangers earn split at Garden with 3-2 win

Coming off their last second win in Game 1 of their best-of-seven game series, on the road in Madison Square Garden, the Washington Capitals had to know they would face a desperate New York Rangers team in Game 2 on Saturday. The Rangers came out fast and furious, as despite the best efforts from the Caps’ captain, the home team forged a split of their home games, topping the Caps 3-2 before a somewhat subdued matinee crowd.

This one could not have started worse for the Caps. Just 38 seconds in Chris Kreider buried a rebound wide open from the slot after Derek Stepan and Jesper Fast combined to create the original shot on goal.

The Rangers continued to buzz the Caps ends the entire frame and at 15:40, with Joel Ward off for hooking, New York found paydirt again. This time, a clearing attempt by Troy Brouwer struck a linesman, deadening the puck at the blue line.

Dan Boyle collected and flung a shot toward the goal that sneaked past Holtby shortside as Rick Nash and Karl Alzner completely blocked Braden Holtby’s view. It was the first power play goal the Caps have allowed in this playoffs, after killing 17 consecutive penalties.

But the Caps had one more penalty to kill in the period, as Tom Wilson was called for charging with just over two minutes to play in the frame. They got the job done, but went to intermission down 2-0, and outshot 15-4 with total shot chances at 29-6.

The Caps woke up a bit after the intermission, cutting into their shots on goal deficit. Several good chances were spoiled by both goaltenders as the game opened up. With just over six minutes to play in the period, though, the Caps struck.

Evgeny Kuznetsov lost a defensive zone draw, but was able to recover the puck regardless. The young Russian skated through the neutral zone and sent the puck hard to the end boards, where Jason Chimera outraced the defense and sent a shot in against Henrik Lundqvist.

The King made the initial save but the puck came back into the slot. Trailing the play, Kuznetsov found the rebound between Dan Boyle’s legs and redirected the puck past Lundqvist to reduce the Rangers lead to 2-1.

Meanwhile, at the other end, Holtby was standing on his head. Twice he was forced to make point-blank saves on a streaking Kreider, who the Caps defense seemingly had no answer for in this one.

Indicative of the Caps picking up their play in the second period: they outshot the Rangers 16-12 in the stanza.

The third period started with the Caps lone power play of the game — against four for the Rangers — as Derick Brassard was called for interference against Alex Ovechkin. Despite three shots on goal, there was no result. As the penalty expired though, Brassard got behind an out-of-position Matt Niskanen, took a pass from Martin St. Louis and beat Holtby from point-blank, restoring the Rangers two-goal lead.

The Caps didn’t fold, getting the better chances in the third and they finally capitalized through great individual effort by their captain.

Ovechkin took a pass from Joel Ward at center ice and split a pair of Rangers’ defensemen. As Ryan McDonough was hauling Ovechkin down, the Great 8 was able to get an unbelievable wrist shot off as he was falling which eluded Lundqvist over his right shoulder to cut the deficit back to one goal.

See it yourself again. It’s the kind of individual effort that only Alex Ovechkin can bring to the ice, and simply because of familiarity Caps fans should not dismiss this goal simply as “Ovi being Ovi.” Regardless of the Caps playoff history, Ovechkin is the best pure goal scorer of this generation and this type of effort and commitment should not be taken casually.

Unfortunately, though, that was the Caps final hurrah. Lundqvist was tested several times down the stretch as the Caps tried to tie to force overtime, but was up to the task each time, even at 6-on-5 for over a minute at the end of the game.

Ultimately, the Capitals have to be happy stealing a game in the Garden and return to DC tied at a game apiece. The Caps have played much better at home thus far in the playoffs, and with a game already under their belts, they have to feel pretty good about themselves heading into Game 3 Monday night. The Caps looked pretty bad at times in both Games 1 and 2 and came out with a win and a one-goal loss so they know they can play with the Rangers, who were the class of the Eastern Conference this season.

Washington Capitals Second Round Game 1 Recap: Wardo wins Game 1 with 1.3 seconds left

JOEL WARD SCORES GAME-WINNER WITH LESS THAN TWO SECONDS LEFT

Tied at one goal apiece after losing the lead late in Game 1 of the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Washington Capitals were faced with overtime in Madison Square Garden. But flipping a script that has seemed to so often go against them, as time was expiring Nick Backstrom made a dicey, but ultimately clean, hit against Dan Boyle on a forecheck, Alex Ovechkin dug the puck away and found Joel Ward in front, who slipped it underneath a sprawled Henrik Lundqvist with less than two seconds remaining on the clock to win Game 1 over the second round series 2-1.

For years, it’s seemed that type of thing happened TO the Caps, not FOR them.

The Washington Capitals have met the New York Rangers eight previous times and four times in the past seven years in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, including three previous meetings in the quarterfinals, in 2009, 2011 and 2013, splitting the eight series. With that history as a backdrop, the Caps once again find themselves in a best-of-seven in the second round with the Broadway Blueshirts.

In Game 1 Thursday night, the Caps took the early advantage, courtesy of their best players.

Ovechkin, Backstrom and Ward owned play much of the time they were on the ice, despite the Rangers tactics of lining up their best defensive duo against them whenever possible. And Braden Holtby was stellar once again with 31 saves, including 11 in the third period, to preserve the win.

The Caps withstood the Rangers hearty attack early in the first period, with the shots on goal at 7-3 at one point. But with 3:34 left in the frame, Dominic Moore held Jay Beagle along the wall and the Caps were awarded their first power play of the series.

Ovechkin took a cross-ice pass through the neutral zone from John Carlson on the rush and, as he’s done so many times in his career, used Dan Boyle as a screen and whipped a wrist shot past Henrik Lundqvist high short-side for his third goal of this playoffs and 11th goal in 27 career playoff games against the Rangers to put the Caps up 1-0.

With 21 seconds before intermission, Dan Kreider clipped Curtis Glencross up high in the Caps’ defensive zone and the Caps went back on the power play.

The Caps resumed the power play at the start of the second, but it was short-lived when Carlson clocked Rick Nash high along the boards and was whistled for interference. The resulting four-on-four and Rangers brief power play were both uneventful.

Both teams had decent chances throughout the second period, with the Caps having the better of play, reducing their deficit in shots on goal throughout the frame. The Caps did a very solid job keeping the Rangers from entering their zone with speed and when the Rangers did finally establish the zone, the Caps did well to keep shots to the outside against Holtby, who nonetheless made several difficult saves in the frame.

Perhaps the best save of the night, however, came from Lundqvist with about five minutes left in the period. The Caps came in on a three-on-two and when the defense collapsed, Nick Backstrom let loose with a wrister from the slot, which Lundqvist snapped up with his catching glove.

The period ended with the Caps still on top, 1-0.

It stayed that way with the Caps playing more of a defensive stance until 4:39 left, as the Caps got caught pinned in their own end and at the end of a very long shift. Kevin Hayes threw one through a mess of bodies from center point that was tipped along the way by Jesper Fast past Holtby to tie the game.

The Rangers’ goal only served to set up the heroics by Ward, assisted by Backstrom and Ovechkin.

After the final horn, Rangers coach Alain Vingneault verbally assaulted the referees about the Backstrom hit which led to the game-winner, but upon video review the hit was hard, but shoulder-to-shoulder, which only looked worse because Rangers defenseman Dan Boyle had his head down trying to dig out the puck.

Game 2 is Saturday at 12:30 pm Eastern Time.

Washington Capitals Game 5 Review: Washington moves to brink of second round with 5-1 drubbing of Islanders

With an iron will and tenacity that no opponent could counter, the Washington Capitals strode onto the ice Thursday night with a grand opportunity. A good performance with a result to match would put them on the verge of their first Eastern Conference Semifinal appearance in three seasons.

Down a goal early, they weren’t fazed. Rising to the occasion, five unanswered goals, two from Evgeny Kuznetsov, lit a fire under the Verizon Center faithful and made for a 5-1 win over the New York Islanders in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. [Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game 4 Recap: Backstrom scores in overtime, Caps tie series with Islanders

In a hair-raising, heart-attack-inducing third period and overtime, the Washington Capitals and New York Islanders stayed nip-and-tuck, with a roaring Nassau Coliseum crowd not even using the seats they paid good money for, and with good reason.

Those rows of fans, however, were quick to exit stage right when Nicklas Backstrom spoke up and delivered what will likely go down as one of the more memorable overtime goals in recent Washington Capitals history, leading the Caps to a 2-1 win to even the series at two games apiece, with Game 5 coming up in Washington on Thursday.

[Read more…]

Washington Capitals Game 2 Recap: Caps score twice in third, shock Islanders

Down 3-1, and having given up a critical goal shortly after tallying their much-needed first, the Washington Capitals were in very dire straits and at risk of falling behind the New York Islanders two games to none in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals. Spurred on by their fans as well as improved puck control, they ensured that talk of a potential sweep would be just that – talk.

A spirited final 30 minutes of hockey, in which Washington scored three unanswered goals in a space of 11 minutes and 28 seconds (spanning two periods), lifted Washington to a 4-3 win in Game 2 of their best-of-seven series against the Islanders in front of a raucous crowd Friday night at Verizon Center.

[Read more…]

Caps-Islanders Round 1 Preview: Once more against Halak

The Washington Capitals sit 16 wins away from claiming their first Stanley Cup, four of which must come against the New York Islanders. Here’s a breakdown of their first round matchup.

Islanders offense vs. Caps defense

Islanders: 2.99 goals per game (4th), 175 5-on-5 goals (4th), 33.8 shots per game (2nd), .592 win percentage when scoring first (25th), .545 win percentage when trailing first (1st)

Caps: 2.43 goals against per game (7th), 140 5-on-5 goals against (12th), 28.9 shots allowed per game (11th)

The main weapon on the Islanders is John Tavares, the 24-year-old superstar who finished second in the NHL in points this season. The offense hinges on him, but not in the same way the Caps’ offense hinges on Alex Ovechkin. The dynamic center is just as adept at setting up goals as he is at scoring them and leads the team both in goals (38) and assists (48). For much of his career, the Islanders have relied far too much on Tavares to carry their offense but that is no longer the case. Kyle Okposo is second on the team in points despite missing 22 games with a detached retina and provides a major threat on the Islanders’ second line. They also have had young talent step up with Ryan Strome, Brock Nelson and Anders Lee all enjoying breakout seasons. [Read more…]

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