Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pens Capture Game Seven

Perhaps the best moment of game seven for the Caps was the last two minutes, when what was left of the sold out Verizon Center crowd put aside grave disappointment and gave the home team a well-deserved standing ovation for a great season. Following the game, and a longer-than-usual handshake line, the Caps remained on the ice to acknowledge the steadfast support.

By then, though, the Caps had long since napalmed their chances of moving onto the Eastern Conference finals. Other than Marc-Andre Fleury stoning Alex Ovechkin just two minutes into the game, the Caps got nary a quality scoring chance until Ovie netted one when the result had long since been decided. The Pittsburgh Penguins notched two goals in eight seconds (12:36 by Sidney Crosby on the power play followed by Craig Adams' first career playoff goal) and the rout had commenced.

"You gotta be ready every night. In the playoffs, if you put yourself in position like this, eventually you're not going to win games," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "We weren't able to get up that much emotionally, it looked like anyway."

Boudreau probably should have used his timeout at that point. But he didn't and things only got worse. Just 30 seconds into the second period, Bill Guerin made it 3-0 and Kris Letang added to the damage about two minutes later from virtually the same spot. That was the end of Simeon Varlamov's night and, quite frankly, the Caps' season.

At the midway point of the game, the Caps had eight shots on goal -- four of which came in the game's first 10 minutes. (The Pens had 22 at that moment.)

"It was definitely anti-climatic," Boudreau said. "It certainly wasn't the way I would have envisioned it, scripted it. You know, whether we won or loss, I never would have thought that we would have ended up in a game like it was tonight."

Amidst an ESPN reunion that only was missing Gary Thorne and Bill Clement comes this nugget: Viktor Kozlov and Donald Brashear are probably headed to the KHL next season. (Sergei Fedorov might join them or retire.)

The Caps, as currently constructed, will gather once more on Friday. Who is around for next season is something that will be the subject of a heated debate in the weeks ahead. And who stays in town (and who joins them) will determine if the Caps will be faced with a similar situation at this time next year.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Here Comes Game Seven

It's unbelievable how many times the Caps under Coach Bruce Boudreau can come back when they're down and out. Tonight, facing elimination at the Igloo against a team that's given them nightmares for many, many years, the Caps pulled out a 5-4 OT win off a Dave Steckel deflection of a Brooks Laich shot.

The odds kept mounting for the Caps as the game progressed: down after one period, down in the second, tie game late, penalty kill in the last two minutes and a hit crossbar away from elimination in OT. But somehow they persevered and somehow they forced game seven.

Only once before had the Caps defeated the Pens in a playoff OT -- and the Steckel-Laich-Matt Bradley line was able to grind out a goal in the extra session. It's now onto another game seven at Verizon Center.

A quick stat pack: the Caps are 2-4 at home in game sevens while the Pens have never won a game seven after losing a game six in a series they led 3-2 (at least that's what Joe B. seemed to say at the end of the game broadcast).

How much more can the hearts of the Caps and their fans take? We'll find out Wednesday night at a loud, red-clad Verizon Center.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Could It End Tonight?

In a way, stats have become meaningless and quotes irrelevant heading into tonight's game six against the Pittsburgh Penguins (7 p.m., CSN). The Caps need to win or it'll be the end of a very memorable season. Throughout their 19 postseason games under Coach Bruce Boudreau, the Caps seem to play better when facing these situations or, as Brian Pothier put it yesterday, showing "desperation and urgency."

Those characteristics should be prevalent in every playoff game. The Pens have played their best hockey over the last three games showing just that and, when the New York Rangers were backed to a wall in game seven of the first round, played better than they had in weeks.

Yes, it's hard to play like there's no tomorrow in game one or two of a series, but it's a necessity. The Caps did win the first two games against the Pens but they didn't outplay the visitors. In fact, many say that the Caps' game five effort was the best so far of the postseason.

The biggest disappointment of this series has been Alex Semin. His virtual disappearance in this vital series is not the first time he's gone away for long stretches, but it's certainly the most inopportune. If he doesn't elevate his game tonight, then what does that say about his mettle when nearly every other player on the active roster has stepped it up for this series?

The Caps need to treat every game like it's an elimination contest. Fortunately for the red, white and blue, tonight's visit to the Igloo is just that.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Busy Weekend Ahead

For the second straight year, the Caps will be engaged in a two-city, back-to-back playoff set against a team from Pennsylvania. Just like last year against the Philadelphia Flyers, two straight wins by the Caps over the Pittsburgh Penguins will earn them a spot in the next round.

The Pens are feeling confident after their game three OT win and for good reason: they were the better team on Wednesday night. But the Caps must take that sickly feeling and turn it into 120 minutes (or more) of retaliation to make their season one of the best success stories in franchise history. (It only would be the third conference finals berth in franchise history.)

Before any eggs are hatched, though, the Caps must work like they've never worked before against a hungry Pens squad. Conventional wisdom suggests that the Pens can't duplicate their game three effort. But let's not forget that Pittsburgh reached the Stanley Cup finals last season with mostly the same squad that they're fielding. And they faced an elimination game in Detroit where they played a perfect game (that they won in OT) similar to Wednesday's effort.

So the Caps must work for everything, storm the crease and, perhaps most importantly, not let the Pens (especially Evgeni Malkin) roam free in their zone. It will take a total team effort, something they are fully capable of producing.

If the Caps try to skate by again (they clearly have not produced a 60-minute effort yet in this series), then their season might take a severe downturn over the next two games. If they put forth their best, then the Caps could be celebrating as early as Saturday night.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Pens Dominate, But Barely Edge Caps

The fact that the Caps even had a chance to win last night's game three against the Pittsburgh Penguins was a minor miracle. If not for Simeon Varlamov's heroic performance, the Caps would have been blown out of the Igloo with so much to think about. And, on top of that, two of the Pens' three goals were the direct result of fortuitous bounces.

That being said, though, the Caps should be ill this morning, swine flu-like even. After a very strong first 10 minutes, the Caps had nearly nothing in the tank for the final 50 in the 3-2 OT loss. They took bad penalties, were sluggish, didn't play with any heart and, quite frankly, shouldn't have been even in the game. It's not time to panic, but it might be close.

"Well, [the Penguins] played great. They were going on all cylinders and we were watching them skate," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "As far as penalties go, I hope I never hear them complain about penalties again, picks, and everything else. I think we might have deserved the penalties, but they sure as hell deserved a few more than they got."

The Pens' first goal was a gift off the stick of Milan Jurcina, who needs to learn how to block passes away from the goal instead of right back to the shooter. The third goal was a gift from Shaone Morrisonn, who probably should have slid instead of trying to block Kris Letang's GWG while upright. The second goal, by Evgeni Malkin, was a thing of beauty I admit -- but by then the Caps already had taken way too many penalties.

Malkin was the best non-goalie on the ice by far. This confirmed what has been known for a while: as Malkin goes, so goes Pittsburgh. The Pens also did a better job of neutralizing the Caps' dominant energy line of Dave Steckel, Brooks Laich and Matt Bradley.

The only good news? The Caps still are up 2-1 in the series and, if they can somehow correct their ills, could close it out this weekend with back-to-back wins Friday in Pittsburgh and Saturday at Verizon Center. A game four loss would give the Pens all the momentum going into what would amount to a best two-out-of-three.

The same cannot be said for the Boston Bruins, who lost by a 3-2 OT count last night in Carolina.

The Caps won't practice today but will have a meeting and media availability. The loss should stew with them all day, steam tomorrow and then energize them for game four. If it doesn't, then all the good gained in the first two home wins will be lost faster than Varly can make another breathtaking save.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Caps Look For Road Icing

As great as the Caps have been playing at home lately, it is on the road that they've made their mark. Not only have they won two of three away from Verizon Center, but it was game three against the New York Rangers (a 4-0 win) that started the turnaround in that series.

Overall, the Caps have allowed just five goals (second fewest in the league) in three postseason games -- two of which were on the power play. Even so, against the Rangers, their power play (28.6 percent, sixth) and penalty kill (88.2, sixth) were pretty decent.

The red, white and blue have won three in a row in the regular season at Mellon Arena and is 3-0-1 in its last four visits. The Caps were 16-6-3 in their last 25 regular-season road games and 10-3-3 on the road after the All-Star break.

Simeon Varlamov leads the NHL in GAA (1.51, tied with Boston's Tim Thomas) and is second to Jonas Hiller in save percentage (.945).

Washington is 11-19 in Game 3, 8-9 when it is played on the road and 3-4 after it won the first two games. The Caps are 2-5 against Pittsburgh in Game 3.

Finally, the Caps are 3-0 when being outshot in these playoffs and 4-0 when their opponent has 25 or more shots on goal. Quite a difference from the regular season, eh?

Malkin panic mode in full effect

Wow, could people overreact a little bit more? Even Spector, possibly the first hockey blogger I ever followed along with Mirtle, threw more logs on the fire by saying "he hasn't scored in 5 games."

True. He hasn't scored ... a goal. Just four assists.

There's no denying that Evgeni Malkin is struggling, but let's calm down a bit people. He scored a ton of points to start the series in Philadelphia and then slowed down, but he's still on a point per game pace in the playoffs. He took a bad penalty and had a bad game 2 but so did most of the non-Crosby Pens. Give him a little time (and hopefully some improved play from his ghost of a line mate Sykora) and everything should be fine.

Let's wait a few more games before we attach some goat horns.