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On Nick Backstrom, appreciation, and linemates

Backstrom_1

Photo by Amanda Bowen of RRBG Photography

Barry Trotz has not been shy in heaping praise upon Nick Backstrom since becoming head coach of the Caps. Trotz has also noted how under appreciated he feels Backstrom is around the league. I think Backstrom is deeply appreciated by Caps fans, generally recognized as one of the most important players on this team. But, just in case you forgot about how great Backstrom is, here’s a reminder.

backstromusage

Backstrom’s career usage chart displays a few things,none of which are surprising, but that I think are  cool to see in visual form. The first is that he’s only been a negative possession player relative to his teammates once in his career. That is was in 2008-09, and it was by less than 1/4 of a %. Other than that, the Caps, season-by-season, have always been a better possession team with Backstrom on the ice than without him. Backstrom has also faced pretty stiff competition, almost always finishing a season north of 29.2% TOI competition. That’s what we’d expect to find from a 1C who is often deployed with Alex Ovechkin.

Much has been made about the fact that Alex Ovechkin will likely start the season back at LW. It’s a fairly safe assumption that Backstrom will line up at Center on a line with Ovechkin. What potential RW would benefit the most by being centered by Backstrom? And what player would Backstrom most benefit from having on his right side?

I’m making a few assumptions in my considerations. One is that Brooks Laich and Evgeny Kuznetsov are not candidates, as I expect them to fill the 3C and 2C spots, respectively. I’m also assuming that most any winger is eligible. It is safe to assume that Trotz won’t be as obsessed with handedness as Adam Oates was, right? I’ve also excluded Tom Wilson from my list of viable options to play alongside Backstrom because their sample size together is minuscule, so there’s nothing to learn from their history together. Here’s how the remaining options for Trotz stack up, measured in Corsi For with and without Backstrom. These are career numbers.

backstromwowy

A note on the sample size here. Minutes with Backstrom are as follows: Brouwer 758:32, Johansson 991:41, Ward 88:53, Fehr 391:26, Chimera 314:37.

Here’s how Backstrom fared with and without each player listed above.

Backstrompart2

 

The “with” sample sizes here are obviously the same.

Brouwer and Johansson have by far the biggest sample sizes playing with Backstrom. It’s clear that Brouwer and Backstrom are not a good match as they both see their possession numbers plummet when playing together. Johansson sees his possession numbers improve with Backstrom, but he’s dead weight to Backstrom, who sees a significant jump in possession away from Johansson. Jason Chimera also appears to be a poor fit with Backstrom.

Joel Ward’s sample size with Backstrom is quite small, but the results are decent. That being said, his skill set is one that thrives on a 3rd line and is likely not suited to play with the likes of Backstrom and Ovechkin on a regular basis.

That bring us to Eric Fehr. Fehr’s success with Ovechkin and Mikhail Grabovski is something we’ve already talked about here in other posts. Fehr’s possession benefits from playing with Backstrom and Backstrom’s possession drops the least when playing with Fehr out of all of the RW options. Long story short, if Eric Fehr is not playing RW alongside Ovechkin and Backstrom on opening night, I’ll consider it a mistake by Trotz.

Nicklas Backstrom is awesome, isn’t he? And boy, an Ovechkin-Backstrom-Fehr line on opening night sure does make a lot of sense.

All stats pulled from War on Ice and Hockey Analysis 

 

Did Alex Ovechkin deserve the Calder in 2005-06?

Alex Ovechkin won the Calder trophy for NHL rookie of the year following the 2005-06 season. Ovechkin totaled 52 goals and 54 assist in 81 games. His 106 points is the 3rd highest total ever for a rookie. 2005-06 was also Sidney Crosby’s rookie season. Crosby had 39 goals and 63 assists. According to Wikipedia, the only other time two rookies have had over 100 points in the same season was in 1992-93 (Teemu Selanne and Joe Juneau).

The voting for the Calder was not specially close, as Ovechkin received 125 of the 129 possible first place votes. He also received 4 second place votes. Crosby received 4 first place votes, 95 second place votes, as well as a number of third and fourth place votes. Scoring 52 goals as a rookie is going to grab the attention of voters. Ovechkin’s highlight reel goals and physical style of play was also credited for helping him win the award nearly unanimously.

Advanced stats are more prevalent than ever before in the NHL, and are certainly more of a thought than they were in 2005-06. While there’s no doubt many voters still pay them no mind, I want to take a look at how the Ovechkin’s and Crosby’s rookie seasons match-up from an advanced stats perspective.

First, here’s a look at a player usage chart.

crosbyovechkin

 

This is for all 5-on-5 situation. So, Crosby (57.256) faced easier zone starts than Ovechkin (52.68%), but also faced (slightly) tougher competition (28.78% to 28.56%). The wide gap on the Y-axis is actually quite small if you look at the scale. Both players had somewhat sheltered zone starts, as would be expected as rookies. The bubble color is set to FenRel% which resulted in no noticeable color for either player because, as you’ll see shortly, these two had similar FenClose numbers in their rookie season. Not pictured here is that both players also had very similar strength of teammates, as measured by TOI teammate %. Ovechkin’s was 30.45%, Crosby 30.48%.

Back to looking at possession through FenRel %. This is another stat where there’s not a very meaningful difference between the two. Ovechkin’s FenRel % was 7.88 and Crosby’s was 7.44. Looking at close game situations also doesn’t give either guy much of an edge. Ovechkin’s close game Fenwick was 53.16%, Crosby 50.95%. When looking relative to their teammates, the numbers are 9.19% and 9.93%, respectively.

Advanced stats don’t do much to distinguish either player during their rookie campaigns. They both had good possession numbers, especially relative to their teammates. Both guys received zone starts that were a bit sheltered, Crosby a bit more than Ovechkin. And lastly, they played with and against very similar levels of competition. Sorry Sidney, I won’t be calling for a re-vote based off of advanced stats.

All data pulled from War on Ice

War on Ice is awesome: Advanced stats highlights from the Caps 2009-10 season

As we’ve already highlighted here on the blog, advanced stats have gotten a lot of publicity this summer. A large part of this was due to NHL front offices making hires that were aimed at forming analytic departments. One of those hires, by the Toronto Maple Leafs, was Darryl Metcalf, the founder of ExtraSkater.com. Extra Skater was the go-to advanced stats resource for many people, myself included, but was shut down when Metcalf was hired by the Leafs. One site that has popped up in Extra Skater’s place is War on Ice. I’ve tweeted some of the stuff that makes War on Ice such a cool site, even eclipsing Extra Skater in terms of depth and quality. While Extra Skater had stats from the present day dating back to the 2010-11 season, War on Ice has stats starting with the 2002-03 season. Much like I did when Extra Skater added stats from the ’10-11 season, I wanted to highlight some interesting stats on War on Ice from seasons that were not available on Extra Skater. This post will take a look at advanced stats highlights from the Caps 2009-10 season. This post will far from exhaust all there is to say about the information available on War on Ice from the 2009-10 Caps. Instead, this post is both an effort to point out some interesting highlights, as well as show off some of the stuff that makes War on Ice so great.

For those who don’t remember, 2009-10 was the season that the Caps dominated the league and were then Halak’d out of the playoffs by the Montreal Canadians in the first round of the playoffs. The Caps were dynamic. 6 players had over 20 goals. Mike Green had 76 points in 75 games. As a lifelong sports fan, this team was the most exciting team I’ve rooted for, regardless of the sport.

To start, here’s a look at 2009-10 via just one of the seemingly endlessly customized chart options on War on Ice. This is a chart looking at all 30 NHL teams. The X-Axis is Fenwick %. The Y-Axis is team goal +/- and the color bubble variance is PDO. The bubble size variance is time on ice, fairly trivial for this chart. This is at 5-on-5 in close game situations.

200910team

The further right, the better the team was, as measured by puck possession. A blue bubble would indicate good fortunate, with red representing poor fortunate.

-The Caps were good, according to Fenwick, but not elite. They finished 12th in FenClose as a team. The Caps FenClose % of 51.19 is their 3rd best since 2002.

-The Caps have the darkest blue circle, meaning they led the league in PDO at an absurd 103.60.

-My quick takeaway from this chart is that the Caps, at 5-on-5, were a good team that was also very fortunate, which resulted in the huge goal differential.

-War on Ice tracks PDO back to 2002, and the 103.60 is by far the highest season PDO the Caps have had in the time frame. The next highest is 101.78 (2002-03)

The next chart is a look at the Caps defenders. The X-axis is FenRel % and the Y-axis is TOI Competition %. The bubble size and color are set to TOI/G. I’m not sure what variable to use as the 4th that will contribute to the substance of this chart, so I TOI is left as a repeat. I’m open to suggestions!

200910CapsD

A few takeaways from this chart:

-Tom Poti and Joe Corvo played a lot of minutes. They were tough minutes and they handled them really well.

-Karl Alzner played against weak competition and he struggled.

-Why was Brian Pothier getting more minutes than Shaone Morrisonn and Milan Jurcina?

Here are some other interesting details. First, the Caps top 5 FenClose Rel from 2009-10

Player Games FenClose Rel
Ovechkin 71 5.59
Backstrom 81 4.64
Poti 69 4.31
Gordon 35 3.83
Steckel 78 3.45

 

And the 5 worst

Player Games FenClose Rel
Alzner 21 -7.04%
Chimera 77 -4.89%
Perreault 21 -4.86%
Sloan 39 -4.78%
Fleischmann 68 -4.02%

 

These charts are pretty self-explanatory. Ovechkin and Backstrom, those two guys are pretty good, eh?

Let us not forget that 2009-10 was the year that Jeff Schultz led the league in +/-.  Now, when arguing with someone about how flawed of a stat +/- is, you can give them Schultz’s exact PDO in the ’09-10 season. Schultz’s PDO was 105.75, which was somehow only good enough for 4th on the Caps that season, behind Carlson (105.89), Fehr (105.87), and Ovechkin (105.81). If only considering players who played in 41+ games, Henrik Sedin finished first in the NHL in PDO at 106.71. The next 3 players league-wide were Caps! Carlson only appeared in 22 games, so the top 4 in the NHL is rounded out by Fehr, Ovechkin, and Schultz.

This look at the 2009-10 season is just scratching the surface of the data available on War on Ice. Go ahead and head over there yourself but be prepared to get lost for days!

 

Mikhail Grabovski: Caps loss is Isles gain (Jeremy Roenick is still wrong)

Yup, this is my second post about ex-Caps player Mikhail Grabovski in the past week. While it’s not my intention in writing this, this is further proof of how wrong Jeremy Roenick is about Grabovski.  But this post is more about the fact that the loss of Grabovski hurts the Caps, while the Isles will benefit from signing him.

On a personal level, Grabovski was the Caps player I most enjoyed watching last season. From a team level, he was a possession monster and a nice solution to the Caps problems at 2C that could have been had long-term for a reasonable salary. But I shouldn’t be the only one missing Grabovski. In fact, most everyone of his teammates should be missing him because almost every Caps player saw an improvement in their possession numbers in the minutes they played with Grabovski vs. when they played without him.

Here is a look at how every Caps forward fared while playing with Grabovski vs. while playing without him. I cut off the minimum minutes at 19:48, so as not to exclude possession anchor Aaron Volpatti. Sample-size warnings obviously apply, but you can see a trend. SA% is the % of shot attempts the Caps saw go in their favor while that player was on the ice.

Player TOI w/Grabovski SA% w/Grabovski TOI w/out Grabovski SA% w/out Grabovski Grabovski effect
Brouwer 273:16 51.6 756:55 46.4 +5.2
Fehr 271:10 55.1 641:53 46.4 +8.7
Ovechkin 235:19 50.8 888:27 48.8 +2.0
Chimera 223:53 49.8 804:11 45.6 +4.2
Ward 207:13 51.2 787:24 46.2 +5.0
Laich 123:59 48.1 508:47 47.9 +0.2
Backstrom 82:42 47.3 1070:13 49.5 -2.2
Wilson 40:53 48.8 598:32 44.8 +4.0
Erat 38:20 58.5 799:17 49.7 +8.8
Johansson 27:26 54.8 1039:55 48.2 +6.6
Beagle 19:49 46.2 609:13 44.6 +1.6
Volpatti 19:48 38.1 279:42 39.7 -1.6

-10 of the 12 Caps forwards who played 19:48+ with Grabovski this past season saw an increase in SF% with Grabovski vs without him, the only two exceptions being Backstrom and Volpatti.

-Remember when Adam Oates started the season with his obvious 2C (Grabovski) on the 3rd line and obvious 2W (Erat) on the 4th line? One wonders what the two could have done if ever given extended minutes together (something I, and many others, called for all season) given their dominating 58.5% SF in the very small sample.

-One interesting tidbit not shows here is that Backstrom, the player with the worst “Grabovski Effect,” saw his highest Goals For % with Grabovski out of all Caps forwards. Certainly just a sample size thing, but interesting nonetheless.

Here’s how are the Caps top 7 D, in terms of minutes played with Grabovski, fared with and without him last season at 5-on-5. Again, sample size warnings apply, but a clear patterns emerges.

Player TOI w/Grabovski SA% w/Grabovski TOI w/out Grabovski SA% w/out Grabovski Grabovski effect
Carlson 291:57 49.1 1029:15 46.3 +2.8
Alzner 287:30 49.9 1005:32 46.4 +3.5
Green 275:10 55.3 1003:39 50.4 +4.9
Orlov 166:52 59.9 795:41 49.0 +10.9
Schmidt 130:48 49.0 358:10 51.3 -2.3
Oleksy 119:42 50.4 316:32 44.9 +5.5
Erskine 92:14 53.3 405:21 43.9 +9.4

-Other than Nate Schmidt, every defender listed saw an improvement in their possession numbers, many of them pretty drastic improvements, when on the ice with Grabovski.

 -It’s especially interesting that the two worst puck possession players on the list, Oleksy and Erskine, both became positive possession players in their minutes with Grabovski, which were admittedly limited.

-I know it’s only 166 minutes, but the Caps were dominant when Grabovski was on the ice with Orlov.

Like I said above, sample-size warnings obviously apply here.  It should also be noted that none of these numbers include any caveats such as zone starts or quality of competition. But make no mistake about it, regardless of that, the Capitals were a better team with Grabovski on the ice, and his new Islanders teammates will start reaping the benefits in October.

All stats pulled from http://stats.hockeyanalysis.com/

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Advanced stats highlights from the Caps 2010-11 season

Advanced stats for the 2010-11 season are now available on ExtraSkater.com. I highly recommend visiting Extra Skater to see the stats for yourself, but below, after a quick refresher on the season, are some Caps highlights I pulled from a glance at the new stats on Extra Skater.

With a record of 48-23-11, the Caps were not only Southeast Division champs, but finished first in the Eastern Conference, with 107 points. The Caps discarded the Rangers 4-1 in the first round of the playoffs before being swept by the #5 seed Tampa Bay Lightening in the second round. This was also the season during which the Caps, under Bruce Boudreau, shifted to a more defensive-oriented system. The Caps defeated the Penguins 3-1 in the 2011 Winter Classic and were featured on the HBO series 24/7.

 

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-The Caps finished 15th in Fenclose%, tied with the Kings at 50.4. The two teams have gone in opposite directions since, with the Caps (47.5%) finishing 25th in 2013-14 and the Kings (56.7%) finishing first.

-Nicklas Backstorm led all qualifying (41+ games played) Caps in FenClose rel at +5.0%, followed by Alex Ovechkin at +3.9% and Alex Semin at +3.5%. The top Caps defender was John Carlson at  +1.9%.

-Alex Semin’s PDO of 107.7 ranked highest on the team, aided by his teammates’ on-ice shooting % of 10.5%, 1.8% higher than any other Caps player.

-Marcus Johansson had the highest ZS% at 58.1%, while Boyd Gordon faced the toughest zone starts, with a ZS% of 41.8%

-As would be expected, the Caps top forward line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Mike Knuble faced tougher competition than any of their teammates. Carlson and Karl Alzner faced the toughest competition of any Caps defenders.

-To the surprise of absolutely no one, Mike Knuble had the shortest average shot distance (24.7 feet).

-Alex Ovechkin was on the ice for 82.4% of the Caps PP minutes during the season (this past season Ovechkin saw the ice during 93.2% of the Caps PP minutes).

This was after a quick look at the stats. If you look through Extra Skater and find any interesting tidbits, leave them in the comments below or give us a shout on Twitter.

What’s next for the Caps?

Some of the Caps fanbase on Twitter and other social media outlets seems a bit uneasy about the fact that the Caps have not yet made a big splash in the free agency market.  While certain players may have made some sense (i.e. PA Parenteau), I’m in no way bothered by the Caps lack of activity thus far.  I would rather the team save the cap space to address needs at a date later than July 1st than rashly fill a hole in a manner that will likely prove to be inadequate or with a contract that will become regrettable.  That being said, there are holes on this roster that need to be fixed, most notably, a winger to replace Alex Semin on the second line.

The Caps filled a major hole on the roster by acquiring Mike Ribeiro from the Dallas Stars. However, with the impending departure of Semin via free agency, the Caps still have some work to do in terms of their top 2 lines.  Given the lack of top-6 talent on the free agent market, the Caps may be best served to make a deal for a winger to play on one of the top two lines, which brings us to scenario one…

Trade for Bobby Ryan or a similar player.

This scenario was brought up recently over at Japers’ Rink with the hypothetical package of Dmitri Orlov, Marcus Johansson and a 1st round pick going to Anaheim for Bobby Ryan.  For a good debate on the value of that deal, head on over and read the comments section.  For my purposes here, I’ll assume the value makes sense for both teams.  If this trade were to happen, or one for a player similar to Ryan, the Caps group of forwards would look like this:

Ovechkin-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Brouwer

Perreault-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Ryan( or similar player)

Chimera-Laich-Ward

Crabb-Beagle-Hendricks

Is Perreault a top-6 winger? No.  But could he be a serviceable option given the quality of the players on his line as well as the quality of the other lines?  I would vote yes.   The top two lines would have plenty of scoring and prove difficult to play against with physical players such as Ovechkin, Brouwer and a Ryan-type player.  I see no question marks with the third and fourth lines listed above, they’d make Dale Hunter proud (and probably be his first and second lines).

However, we can play arm-chair GM all we want, but it doesn’t magically make Bobby Ryan or a similar player available and/or affordable.   So what if the Caps can’t bring in a second-line winger?   What if the contract or asking price for such a player is currently at a level that will do more harm than good for the Caps?  This bring us to scenario 2…

Sign Jason Arnott

This comes with a disclaimer. Ultimately, the Caps need a to acquire a 2W, not Jason Arnott. Without acquiring a winger to play on the second line, the Caps are not legitimate Cup contenders.   But what if nothing makes sense? Should the Caps stand pat?  Depending on the what’s available, possibly, but I hope it doesn’t come to that.   Instead, the Caps should put a band-aid on the situation and wait until a trade for a 2W opens up.  A band-aid type fix would involve bringing in a player on a short-term, low-risk deal so as not to handcuff the team should a 2W becomes available.   To me, the easiest way to do this is to sign a player to solidify the center spot on the third line to free up Brooks Laich to play wing on the second line.  Of all of the available free agents, Jason Arnott strikes me as the player best suited to serve in this role.  He’d likely be available on a one-year deal for a reasonable amount of money.  The forward lines would then look like this:

Ovechkin-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Brouwer

Laich-Backstrom/Ribeiro-Perreault/Johansson

Chimera-Arnott-Ward

Crabb-Beagle-Hendricks

I wouldn’t have a lot of faith in this team contending for the Cup, but I don’t think it’d be a disaster over the short term, either.  The intention here is to put a band-aid on the 2W situation until a legitimate one hopefully becomes available via trade during the season.  This is  certainly not an ideal option, but it’s better than signing Player X, who is questionably adequate to play as a 2W for the duration of his contract, to a deal that will be harmful to the team’s cap management.

Regardless of what the Caps end up doing, I like the patient approach they have opted for thus far.  Doing nothing to address glaring needs is generally a better approach than addressing those needs in an inadequate or fiscally irresponsible manner.  That being said, signing a player such as Arnott makes sense for the short-term.  The would allow Laich to fill-in as a 2W while also not handcuffing the team financially when/if a 2W becomes available.

Possible free agent target: Brad Boyes

The Capitals top-6 forwards are in need of reinforcements. With Alex Semin set to become an UFA and depending on if the Caps have Brooks Laich penciled in as a 2W or 3C next season, the Caps currently have as few as 4-top 6 forwards on their roster right now (Ovechkin, Backstrom, Brouwer, and newly acquired Mike Ribeiro).  These kind of players don’t come cheap, via trade or free agency.  With a particularly thin free-agent market this year, the price for top-6 forwards is likely to be even more inflated than usual.  The Caps have smartly not locked themselves into any crippling free agency deals with such players in recent memory, and it wouldn’t be smart to start now.  That being said, George McPhee would be smart to look for a player with top-6 potential but who has certain questions marks that will keep the money and term of the deal within reason.  On the free agent market this year, a player that fits that mold is Brad Boyes.

Over the course of the 2007-08 and 2008-09 seasons, Boyes played in all 164 games and totaled 76 goals and 62 assists (a 0.84 PPG average).   However, in the 3 seasons since then, Boyes has totaled just 38 goals and 91 assists in 210 games (a 0.61 PPG average).  Boyes was particularly mediocre this season in Buffalo when he totaled 8 goals and 15 assists in 65 games.  So why should the Caps take a look at Boyes?

At 29, Boyes is unlikely to again reach the numbers of 4 years ago, but he is plenty young enough to still be a productive player when put in the right situation.  Last season, Boyes played just 13:10 per game and spent time on the Sabres 4th line.  While some may see a player whose production has fallen off a cliff, I see a player with a lot to prove who could be had on a cheap one year deal.  He likely will be signed to a low-risk/potential high value type deal.  Another positive is that Boyes, while primarily a winger, can play center when called upon.

There are reasons to hesitate signing Boyes and there are certainly valid concerns that his days as a top-6 forward are behind him.  However, in a day and age when many free agent contracts get bloated to regrettable levels, taking a flyer on Boyes, if he is under the radar, may be worth the risk for the Caps.

It’s over for the 2011-12 Caps, but these playoffs felt different

Just over two months ago, with less than twenty games remaining in the Washington Capitals regular season, I wrote the following as part of a post on how the struggling team was complaining about signs that fans were holding up before a game:

I’ve rooted for a lot of losing teams in my life; it’s really not hard to do. I’m not a fair weather fan, even when my teams are on a losing streak. But when a team doesn’t seem to care for stretches at a time or when they look deflated, uninspired and plain defeated, they’re not always a lot of fun to pull for…

See yourself, one solid shift at a time, winning the game being played on the ice, Caps, not what some fan is holding up to the glass surrounding it. Your season, and many fans’ patience, might be gone soon if you don’t.

A statue, located outside Rexall Place in Edmo...

A statue, located outside Rexall Place in Edmonton, honouring Wayne Gretzky. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s hard to believe that the Caps team that just eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champions and then took the Eastern Conference’s top seed to seven games is the same group that seemed so far from focused just a short time ago. But focused is exactly what this team appeared to be during much of its 2011-12 playoff run.

Though their eventual Game 7 elimination by the New York Rangers was disappointing, like most any playoff exit is, and contained examples of improvement still being needed—such as an ugly third period power play or the inability of the team’s star players to perform at the level required to win the game—it’s hard to be upset with the Caps’ overall post-season performance, particularly given where they were in March. Perhaps more importantly, these playoffs signaled that the Caps of the Ovechkin era may be capable of playing the type of dedicated hockey often seen from teams that make deep playoff runs.

As Thomas Boswell of The Washington Post wrote in his post-series column:

In the past, what Washington often lacked was much more than a goal. It was a combination of qualities that command respect in the NHL and which Hunter, of course, calls character. He might as well say “pain in pursuit of progress,” because everything he demands hurts in one way or another.

Whether a Capitals player must throw his body in front of slap shots, bang on the boards, focus on defense first or sacrifice minutes so the right players, by skill-set, not star reputation, can be on the ice at the proper times — there is always an element of sacrifice…

Sacrifice. Dedication. Grit. Leaving it all on the ice. These are not terms that have been used often to describe the Caps playoff teams of the past few seasons. Yet even NBC Sports commentators were complimenting players like Ovechkin for blocking shots and buying into Dale Hunter’s system at times this post-season (it’s critical that Ovi still improve his two-way game more than any player on the team, but that’s perhaps a topic for another day).

Did this Caps team blow an opportunity in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead? Absolutely. But they bounced back and won the next game, like they did every time they needed to during these playoffs. Every game was close for the Caps, against both Boston and New York. All but one game during their entire fourteen game run was decided by one goal.

This year’s performance was far beyond last year’s second round loss in four straight to Tampa Bay, the blown 3-1 series lead against Montreal the year before or the 6-2 Game 7 loss to the Penguins in 2008-09 for which the Capitals didn’t seem to be in the building. As I’ve written before, “Not since the 2007-08 playoff loss in seven games to the Flyers has it appeared as if the team left it all out on the ice as they were eliminated.” That changed this post-season.

This year’s team seemed to grasp the fact that talent alone isn’t enough to win in the playoffs. These Caps were playing as if they now better understand the concept Wayne Gretzky wrote about in his autobiography, when he described the scene as he and fellow Edmonton Oiler Kevin Lowe left the building after losing the 1983 Stanley Cup Finals to the New York Islanders:

“We both knew we were going to have to walk by the Islander locker room, and we were dreading it: having to see all the happy faces, the champagne shampoos, the girlfriends’ kisses, the whole scene we wanted so much.  But as we walked by, we didn’t see any of that. The girlfriends and the coaches and the staff people were living it up, but the players weren’t. Trottier was icing what looked like a painful knee. Potvin was getting stuff rubbed on his shoulder. Guys were limping around with black eyes and bloody mouths. It looked more like a morgue than a champion’s locker room.  And here we were perfectly fine and healthy. That’s why they won and we lost. They took more punishment than we did. They dove into more boards, stuck their faces in front of more pucks, threw their bodies into more pileups. They sacrificed everything they had.  And that’s when Kevin said something I’ll never forget. He said, ‘That’s how you win championships.'”

Washington players have taken some bumps and bruises in the playoffs the past few years, but quite often it was the Caps who were having their shots blocked or who were being beaten to pucks by guys that seemed to want it just a little bit more. While it was the Rangers who rose to the occasion and seized the opportunity before them in Game 7 Saturday, the Caps put together a playoff run that shows they may finally be on their way toward getting it.

24th anniversary of Dale Hunter’s OT goal for Caps in Game 7 vs. Flyers

As the Washington Capitals face off against the Boston Bruins in Game 3 of their opening round playoff series on Monday night, the date marks the 24th anniversary of one of the biggest goals in Caps history. As any serious Caps fan probably knows, that goal was scored by the man now behind the bench for Washington…

I remember that goal well. It was scored on my 13th birthday. Snow flurries fell at one point that day in the D.C. area, which doesn’t happen too often around here on April 16. I was in seventh grade at the time and had a birthday party at my house that evening with my friends.

As soon as the party was over, I headed to the living room for the Caps game. My family and I were watching on TV—it was on Home Team Sports (HTS) in those days—as Hunter put that puck through Hextall’s legs.

For a franchise that had always seemed to lose big playoff games to Patrick Division foes, Hunter’s goal scored a monumental victory. Just the year before, the team had lost the Game 7, four overtime, Easter Epic to the New York Islanders (a shout out to my mom for taking me to that game and staying until the end, and to my uncle Mike for those tickets).

Four banners for the the Washington Capitals r...

Four banners for the the Washington Capitals retired numbers hang in the Verizon Center, #5 Rod Langway, #7 Yvon Labre, #11 Mike Gartner, and #32 Dale Hunter. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the next round following Hunter’s series winning goal, the Caps fell to the New Jersey Devils in seven games. I was at Game 1 of that series at the Caps Centre (thanks to my aunt Terry for taking me to that one), when Rod Langway took a skate to the back of the leg from the Devil’s Pat Verbeek, putting the Caps’ captain out of action for the rest of the playoffs. My memory of the rest of that series is hazy, except that I recall being concerned after the team lost Langway on defense and I imagine the series might have played out differently had he been available the rest of the way.

After defeating the Caps, New Jersey went on to lose to Boston (the Schoenfeld-Koharski “Have another donut” incident took place during that time) and then Boston was swept in the Stanley Cup Finals by Edmonton in a series that also featured Boston Garden fog and a power outage that stopped Game 4 there in progress and forced its cancellation. I think my dad and I watched every minute of those Finals together.

That was the last playoff run for that particular group of core Caps players. The next year at the trade deadline, Caps General Manager David Poile dealt Mike Gartner and Larry Murphy to the Minnesota North Stars for Dino Ciccarelli and Bob Rouse. That same day, Poile also dealt goaltender Clint Malarchuk, defenseman Grant Ledyard and a draft pick to Buffalo for Calle Johnansson and a pick.

Malarchuk had come to the Caps with Dale Hunter in a trade with Quebec prior to the ’87-’88 season and had become expendable after the emergence of Don Beaupre, a former NHLer with the North Stars who’d been playing for the Caps’ AHL affiliate in Baltimore before being promoted to Washington. The Caps would use the draft pick they got from Buffalo in that Malarchuk deal to select goaltender Byron Dafoe in the 1989 entry draft, the same year they also drafted a guy named Olaf Kolzig.

Rouse, acquired in that trade with Ciccarelli, was eventually dealt to Toronto with Peter Zezel for defenseman Al Iafrate in 1991. After a few seasons in Washington, including one in which he scored 25 goals, Iafrate was traded to Boston for Joe Juneau.

That 1988 Dale Hunter goal against the Flyers was the biggest in Caps history until this overtime score by Juneau against the Buffalo Sabres, ten years later in the 1998 playoffs, sent Washington to their first ever Stanley Cup Finals…

Though this goal might now be the most famous one ever scored by a Capital…

Where were you the night Hunter scored that goal 24 years ago for the Caps? Add a comment about it below.

Four years ago today: Alex Ovechkin’s first NHL playoff goal and Caps fans

As sportswriter Ted Starkey pointed out on Twitter, it was four years ago today that Alex Ovechkin scored his first NHL playoff goal, “stealing the puck and scoring late in a 5-4 win over the Flyers in Game 1.”

I was at that game and took some video in the crowd as we reacted to that Ovechkin goal. It’s not the steadiest camera work, but the place was total bedlam with much high-fiving, jumping, etc. happening all around Verizon Center.

Here’s one I got after Mike Green scored prior to Ovechkin’s goal to make it 4-4:

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