The Washington Capitals are 3-6 now in playoff series in the Alex Ovechkin Era, and the franchise has yet to advance past the second round in that time. If you judge the success of an NHL franchise in playoff wins and Stanley Cups, the Capitals have not only been a failure, but a spectacular one at that. Of the six playoff series losses since the ’07-’08 season, the Caps have held a two-game lead in three of them, five have gone seven games and the Caps hosted Game 7 and lost four times. That’s not just losing, that’s losing badly.
Of course, you know all this already.
During the Ovechkin Era, the Caps have been eliminated from the playoffs in eerily similar fashion. They run into a hot goalie, and teams game plan to frustrate the Caps’ talented players by blocking shots and clogging up the neutral zone and passing lanes.
These teams: the Flyers, Canadians, the Penguins, the Rangers — twice (the Lightning sweep in ’11 doesn’t count), have simply shown more patience than the Caps and waited them out. Eventually, and ultimately, the Caps shoot themselves out and their opponent waits and waits and counterpunches when the Caps run themselves out of the building. It’s not unlike a heavyweight boxing match when a lesser-skilled boxer will allow his opponent to wear himself down punching, then sneak in when he gets tired.
It happened in Game 7 again.
Look no further than the number of shots. Not on goal, but overall number of shots taken. The Caps attempted a grand total of 79 shots. 35 made their way to Lundqvist, and yes, he turned them all away. But Washington also had 27 attempts blocked by Rangers defenders and another 17 missed their mark altogether. The Rangers attempted 47 shots, 27 on goal. Five went in.
Every year the Caps are bounced after a grueling series and we hear the same things from the losing locker room. “We ran into a hot goalie.” “We thought we were the better team.” “We’re frustrated with the result.” I could go back and look up quotes but you know them as well as I do.
Here are this years:
“You can see one guy beat us. Of course they have good team, great players, great defensive team, but the goalie out there was unbelievable. That’s why he’s best in league,” said Ovechkin. “In my mind it was Lundqvist. They have great team, no doubt about it, but Lundqvist was unbelievable. Just unbelievable.”
“It’s the same thing as previous years, I would say,” said Nicklas Backstrom. “We came back regular season then playoff came and we’re not good enough. I can just talk for myself and my effort. Not good enough. No excuses. It’s just a bad effort.”
“We threw the kitchen sink at him at times and he stood there and defended,” Mike Green said. “He’s a great goaltender we knew that, we talked about it before the series how to beat him and the times that we did score was what we talked about. At times I thought we kind of got away from that. I’m at a loss for words.”
But it’s much deeper than that. Yes, Lundqvist is a world class goalie. Yes, Jaroslav Halak stood on his head for three weeks that spring. But the real reason these goalies have so much success over the Caps is that the shots that get through are lesser quality — from farther away — and from less dangerous areas of the ice. Look at the shot chart. You’ll see where the goals are scored during the playoffs.
The Caps got a grand total of 226 shots on goal in the seven game series, an average of over 32 SOG per game. That’s good. But they scored just 12 goals, a shooting percentage of just 5.3 percent. That’s beyond bad. It’s also a testament of where those shots are coming from. In the regular season, the Caps had ten players with a shooting percentage higher than 10 percent. In the series, that number was four.
Ovechkin, obviously, led the team in shots with 30 and scored once, for a shot percentage of 3.3 percent. Ugh. Is that the result of suffocating defense? A hot, world class goalie? An injury? Bad luck? Even during the period of Ovi’s toughest struggles the last couple of seasons, that kind of shooting percentage is simply anomaly.
But here’s the kicker: the next three highest shot totals in the series all came from defensemen. Karl Alzner, of all people, tied for third on the team in shots on goal with 19 (he was 15th on the team in the regular season with 39). Those are shots from the deep perimeter that have a very low chance of going in. And a team with Karl Alzner pacing them in shots on goal isn’t going to win very many series — no offense to Karl. He isn’t paid to light the lamp.
The Capitals are, essentially, a perimeter team. Ovechkin prefers to carry the puck and rush at the goalie, or get fed for one-timers at the face-off dot. Green shoots from the point. He has a wicked shot, but it’s from outside the circles, nonetheless. During the regular season, when defensive players are less apt to “sell out” to block shots during a grueling 82-game schedule, they have success shooting from their outside spots, with talented finesse playmakers like Nick Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro setting them up.
But during the playoffs, the book is out on the Caps. If you clog up the box, put all five skaters inside the circles to jam up the shooting and passing lanes, the Caps will get frustrated. Oh, they have a modicum of success early in the series, winning games early in the series until the opposition realizes the deal and really buys into it. But as the games creep closer to elimination, it works without fail.
There’s not enough room to operate between the circles. That’s one of the big reasons players like Backstrom and Ribeiro are neutralized in the playoffs. That’s often why you see players like Brian Boyle score in the playoffs: they’re willing to go to the net. But the Caps lack enough of these types of players. Just look at the shot totals from the series from the forwards on this team not named Ovechkin. No forward had more than one goal. Jason Chimera was the next highest forward in shots with 15. That’s barely two shots per game. And he was the best of the forwards named Ovechkin.
Look at the goals from the games the Caps won in this series.
– Game 1: Ovechkin scored his only goal of the series on a put-back off the back wall. Marcus Johansson on a breakaway on a great spring pass and defensive breakdown. Jason Chimera though a screen.
– Game 2: Mike Green on the power play in overtime from inside the top of the faceoff circle.
– Game 5: Ribeiro, at the top of the crease.
Only Johansson’s can be called a “pretty’ goal, and that was caused by a spectacular breakdown by the Rangers defense.
Philadelphia. Montreal. Pittsburgh. New York. These are all series where the Caps had home-ice advantage and lost Game 7. They all used the same script against the Caps. It matters not when the book is so clearly out on these Capitals. Stuff the box and they have no other way to score. And the Capitals will be moving into a division with three of the four next season, along with New Jersey and the up-and-coming Islanders. Their path to hockey’s holy grail just got infinitely more difficult.
I’m not advocating the Caps go back to playing Dale Hunter hockey. Far from it. These teams that play hyper-defensively do it because they don’t have the offensive capabilities of the Capitals. You don’t win a Stanley Cup playing that way, you’ll eventually run out of energy or bodies. You need to have a balanced approach, be able to make adjustments when presented with challenges and be willing to sacrifice both in the defensive and offensive zones. The Caps, simply, don’t have enough of those players yet.
The other part I want to mention is the whole “woe is us” mentality following these playoff ousters. Ovechkin’s comments about the officiating, the lack of calls in Game 6, and someone wanting to see a Game 7 were ridiculous and smelled of sour grapes.
“The refereeing… You understand it yourself. How can there be no penalties at all (on one team) during the playoffs?
“I am not saying there was a phone call from (the league), but someone just wanted Game 7. For the ratings. You know, the lockout, escrow, the League needs to make profit… I don’t know whether the refs were predisposed against us or the League. But to not give obvious penalties (against the Capitals), while for us any little thing was immediately penalized…”
For his part, Ovechkin also said that he, the other stars on the team, and the team in general simply didn’t play well enough, but offered no specifics in how or, more importantly, why.
GM George McPhee backed his superstar in his comments to the media Wednesday.
“I don’t think there’s a league conspiracy but it sure didn’t feel right. Alex wasn’t wrong,” McPhee said when asked directly about Ovechkin’s comments. “I talked to them during the series but at some point you stop. They’ll referee the way they want to referee.”
“I didn’t like the refereeing, but if you complain about it during the series and you’re accused of trying to gain an edge. If you complain about it after a series is over, then it’s whining and sour grapes.”
But Ovechkin’s not the only one wondering what happened. Here’s Eric Fehr, talking about both the points I’ve been trying to make.
“The Rangers must have blocked a hundred shots. It was crazy how well they kept us on the outside,” veteran Eric Fehr said. “They do a good job of it, and they are allowed to do a very good job . . . Holding and pushing, they are allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted to do in front of the net.”
Every year teams complain about the officiating. It’s an NHL tradition as think as growing playoff beards. At some point though, these Capitals have to stop feeling sorry for themselves and take matters into their own hands. The way they collapsed after the power play ran dry at the start of the second period of Game 7 was palpable and disheartening.
The biggest difference between the Caps and the Rangers was evident in the third period. After the fourth goal, the Caps were skating at half speed, trying to get off the ice as fast as they could, and the Rangers were still blocking shots with a four, then five, goal lead.
I think Adam Oates has a pretty good idea what constitutes good hockey. He’s lauded as one of the smartest guys to ever play in the league. It took a little while this season, but he was able to find the way to rejuvenate Ovechkin and get him to play his best hockey in years. And not just scoring, but all-around. He was a better playmaker this year. He brought his physical game back. He skated better. Will that be sustainable? Caps fans have to hope so, because the success of this franchise is directly tied to Ovechkin being the “Great Eight”, not the mediocre or league-average Eight.
I also think that Oates still doesn’t have the roster he wants or needs to be successful. After Ovechkin and Backstrom, there’s a serious drop-off in talent. There’s also a significant lack of power forwards on the team. Why did the Caps turn to 19-year old Tom Wilson in Game 5 of the series to make his NHL debut? His size and willingness to play in front of the net. There is a dearth of that on this team. The Caps hope and pray Wilson turns out to be their Brian Boyle or Milan Lucic, and could stand to add another player or two like him.
This column might sound like I’m down on the Caps. I’m not. The last 35 games of this season showed that they can be a force to be reckoned with in the NHL. They didn’t do it with smoke and mirrors, they did it by outplaying the teams on their schedule. But there are significant holes in the roster. Their level of competition will get higher next season. And they are fundamentally flawed when the ice gets shorter in the playoffs.
The Caps have a little under $6 million available under the cap for next season, and that’s before trimming some dead weight off the roster and evaluating their own free agents. We’ve said this for a while, but it’s a crucial off-season for GM George McPhee. Coming into this year, it looked like the Caps weren’t counting on having a season at all with the lockout. The turnaround showed promise after the near-fatal start, but there’s lots to do this summer.
The almost-free path to the playoffs that the Caps’ Southeast Division schedule afforded them is gone. That playoff revenue is critical to the Capitals organization, and it just became much more difficult to obtain.
Oh, and I didn’t even mention the goaltending, which I’m not completely sold on. But that’s a post for another day.