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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.

Dale Hunter’s reaction to penalty call in OT on Alexander Semin

Dale Hunter’s reaction to the penalty call on Alexander Semin in the first overtime was classic!

A few tweets and thoughts on Alex Ovechkin’s ice time

This is going to be a quick post, with a few tweets and thoughts on what seems to be the sports story of the day in DC and beyond: Alex Ovechkin’s ice time in Game 2 versus the New York Rangers last night.

A few of mine from this morning…

One from Mike Vogel after the game last night…

And a couple of mine from after the game…

One way to look at this: it often feels good when you don’t need to go to your closer to win a baseball game, knowing he’ll then be better rested the next time you need him. If the Caps get involved in another long series or make a deep playoff run, keeping your players from getting too banged up is usually a good thing.

See the chart at the bottom of this article from The Globe and Mail for a look at Ovechkin’s minutes for every playoff game he’s played:

Ovechkin’s ice time last night is an interesting story, but I don’t see it as an issue right now.

Is Alex Semin being held to a higher standard than other Caps players?

My brother Pat wasn’t happy with Alex Ovechkin’s effort defensively on the Rangers first goal in Game 1 of their second round playoff series. He tweeted, “The listless, one hand on the stick effort in support of his D man who was clearly beaten is not really my thing.”

I hadn’t noticed this during the game. I was mostly focused on watching Artem Anisimov out-muscle Mike Green. But I tend to agree with my brother on this one. Where was the Ovechkin that seems to relish crushing opposing players with an explosive hit? This would have been a great time for one of those. At the very least, just a solid shoulder or a strong poke check might have done the job. I can’t help but wonder if Ovechkin would have had more spring in his step had this instead been an opportunity for a big play in the offensive zone.

Artem Anisimov scores in Game 1

Somewhat related to this, Alexander Semin has been demoted to the fourth line for Game 2.

Semin took two penalties in Game 1, one for unwisely retaliating after being slashed by a Ranger player and another for tripping a player while forechecking. The second penalty didn’t bother me much, as it appeared he was going for the puck and got too aggressive.

Caps’ Coach Dale Hunter told reporters regarding Semin, “We need him to score goals for us, we need him to play good on the power play.” (Note: Semin leads the team in both goals and power play goals so far in the playoffs.)

As I said via Twitter earlier today, I don’t care a great deal either way about Semin’s move to the fourth line. Maybe it will pay off through a more balanced set of lines or perhaps it will motivate Semin and we’ll see a big game from him. However, I do find it odd that Semin gets banished to the fourth line, while other highly-skilled offensive players on the team often don’t when they’re guilty of less-than-stellar play. Nor do I think they should necessarily.

For example, Nicklas Backstrom’s lack of hustle cost the Caps a goal in Game 6 against the Bruins (I’m not talking about the game-winning goal that was a result of his turnover and was easier to forgive). Marcus Johannson has been giving the puck away far too often these playoffs with careless passes. Ovechkin took a bad penalty Saturday against the Rangers for tripping, put in a questionable defensive effort on the Ranger goal highlighted above and was kept off the score sheet like Semin, but there’s no way Ovi or Backstrom is going to get demoted to the fourth line—and for good reason. Yet Semin does?

Maybe there’s more to the Semin story than I’m aware of as a spectator who isn’t in the locker room, but the higher standard Semin seems to be held to confuses me. Even the league seemed to have something against the guy when he was the first 40 goal scorer I know of to be left off the All-Star ballot the next season (I don’t mean Semin just didn’t make the game…I mean he scored 40 goals and then you couldn’t even vote for him unless you wrote him in).

NBC’s Pierre McGuire doesn’t give Semin a break, even when he’s scored a goal on more than one occasion right after McGuire calls him out. As writer Dave Lozo recently noted, “Alex Semin is the only guy who can score on national TV and have people spend the next 5 minutes questioning why he doesn’t try. Amazing.”

ESPN and Washington Post contributor Neil Greenberg said on Twitter today, “Surprised ppl continue to underappreciate Caps Semin’s contributions beyond points (and off zone penalties). If he walks, tough to replace.” Greenberg also did a statistical analysis last fall about how the criticism of Semin is unfair.

I don’t deny that there are occasions when Semin is—like many players—deserving of some criticism. However, I find it odd that other key Caps make mistakes and it doesn’t become half the story it does when Semin isn’t playing the way people would like him to.

But putting all that aside, if the demotion of Semin to the fourth line for tonight’s game results in a two-goal night, Hunter’s a genius.

The Caps 3rd and 4th lines must produce or the season is over

Last year, the Caps watched enviously as Tampa Bay Lightening role player Sean Bergenheim scored 4 goals to help lead the Bolts to a sweep of the Caps.  Bergenheim’s heroics, coupled with the Caps lack of scoring from their grinder lines, led to moves in the offseason that were intended to give the Caps 3rd and 4th lines more of a scoring punch, especially come playoff time.  Jeff Halpern and Joel Ward were signed.  A trade was made to bring in Troy Brouwer, with the thought that he’d either play on the 3rd line or push Mike Knuble down the depth chart to strengthen the lower lines.  Unfortunately for the Caps, the lack of secondary scoring remains.   Here is a look at the Caps production (or lack thereof) from the bottom 2 lines through 3 games against Boston.

Man Games      Goals        Assists         +/-           SOG

18                    0                  0               -9            18

These numbers include the 5 players (Aucoin, Perreault, Ward, Hendricks and Beagle) who have spent all 3 games on the bottom two lines as well as a game each from Brouwer (Game 3), Chimera (Game 2) and Johansson (Game 1).  Beagle has 8 of the 18 shots. Perreault and Aucoin, two-thirds of the 4th line, have combined for 1 shot and a -3 rating.  How can we blame Joel Ward for not producing when these are his partners?  Ward never did and never will carry a line, so he must play with guys who are going to carry their own weight.

Perreault took some good strides this year when playing as our 2C, but the Caps have opted to go with more size on the top lines against the Bruins, leaving Perreault on the 4th line, a role he is ill-suited for.  Perreault either needs to be playing on one of the top two lines or be out of the lineup for a player (i.e. Jeff Halpern) who’s skill set is better suited for a checking line role.

Of all of Hunter’s questionable coaching decisions, giving Aucoin a jersey over Knuble, against an opponent like the Bruins, may be the most perplexing. If ever there was a time when we need to #freeknuble, it is Thursday night at Verizon Center.  The Capitals (much like any team this time of year) will be hitting the golf course sooner rather than later if they don’t get production from the 3rd and 4th lines.  So, Caps fans, who ya got, Knuble or Aucoin?  Perreault or Halpern?  I’m certainly hoping there are two different faces in the lineup for the Caps come Thursday night.

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.

What went wrong?

Life was good for the Caps as tonight’s game went to a TV timeout with a little over 13 minutes remaining in the 2nd period.  The team was up 3-0, outshooting the Jets 16-9 in the process.  Alex Ovechkin had two goals and it looked as if he and his teammates may blow the Jets out of the building.  They didn’t.  The Caps were outscored 4-0 the rest of the way and outshot 33-7, losing a standings point along the way.  What went wrong?

-Two words: Dennis Wideman.  Wideman’s consistent indecision and ineffectiveness with the puck when exiting the defensive zone proved especially costly tonight on the winning goal.  He had two chances to get the puck out and failed miserably both times.  About 30 seconds before the goal he tried to skate the puck out 1 on 3 and got his pocket picked just inside the blue line.   #6 has to make a better decision there. Lob the puck out, ice the puck, chip it forward four feet to clear the zone.  Just don’t turn it over 2 feet inside your own blue line  in that situation ever.   Still, Wideman had a chance to make amends.  Alex Ovechkin mishandled the puck above the faceoff circle but made a decent recovery and chipped the puck back to Wideman.  At this point the Caps were in scramble mode so Wideman needs to, again, just get the puck out, even if it means taking an icing.  Instead he weakly chipped the puck off the glass to the feet of a covered Ovechkin.  Turnover, Jets win 4-3.

-The way in which the Jets cut the deficit from 3-0 to 3-2 looked entirely too easy.  It was the kind of thing that makes Brooks Laich do this.  In less than two minutes the game went from being firmly controlled by the Caps to a dogfight.

-Dale Hunter made coaching decisions that were wrong questionable perplexing.  There was plenty of talk about the tactical approach by the Caps in the second half of the game, and rightfully so, but not much talk of Hunter letting his timeout go to waste when his team was under relentless pressure. As Caps Season Ticket Holder Joe Holden (Dad, as I call him) questioned after the game, why didn’t Hunter call a timeout at any point in the 3rd period with his team under siege in an attempt to slow the momentum?  The Jets called a timeout with the Caps up 2-0 and buzzing for more goals.  True, the Caps did then go up 3-0 but the end result was a 4-3 Jets win.  Maybe the Jets timeout had nothing to do with the change in momentum, but it would have been nice to see Hunter use his timeout in an attempt to calm his team down since nothing else was working. Oh, and as J.P. already pointed out. Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks (as well as Troy Brouwer) skated more minutes than Alex Ovechkin.

The Caps have let two points inexcusably slip away at home against the Jets this year while the Jets have escaped DC with four points that they’d be all but out of the playoff race without.  No sense in dwelling on any of this any longer with any sort of closing paragraph.  Next up: Minnesota.

Caps coaching staff and minute management

“Hunter and his staff also deserve some credit for their smooth management of minutes in Saturday’s game. With another big contest looming against the Bruins on home ice in less than 24 hours, the Caps kept all 18 of their skaters to less than 23 minutes… …Defenseman Jeff Schultz, getting a sweater for consecutive contests for the first time in nearly two months, logged 13:53 as Washington’s sixth defenseman. That figure represents the most ice logged by a No. 6 defenseman (determined by ice time) in a Caps game since assistant coach Jim Johnson joined Hunter behind the Washington bench on Nov. 30.”

Dump ‘n’ Chase

Is Caps coach Dale Hunter looking to set a new tone for the “second half”?

The Washington Capitals today announced they’ve signed 24-year-old forward Joel Rechlicz and called him up from Hershey. According to the team’s press release, “Rechlicz, 24, has recorded one goal, one assist and 184 penalty minutes in 27 games with Hershey this season. He currently leads the AHL in penalty minutes.”

Could the signing of Rechlicz have something to do with the fact that the Caps are playing Steve Downie’s team tomorrow night? Downie was a bit of a pest the last time the Caps faced Tampa Bay and his fight with Karl Alzner seemed to spark his team. Perhaps Washington head coach Dale Hunter is looking for someone on his bench to use in a similar fashion against the Bolts and other upcoming opponents, or to at least keep guys like Downie from taking guys like Alzner off the ice for five minutes? As writer Ted Starkey pointed out, the Caps also face Montreal and Rene “I Elbowed Your #1 Center in the Head” Bourque on Saturday.

This call up of Rechlicz could set an interesting tone at the start of the “second half,” especially for a team that begins it with three games on the road, a place the Caps have struggled. Are we about to see some Hunter Hockey, as the Caps’ coach looks to establish his team in the stretch run as one that won’t back down and that might even proactively mix it up a bit more with opponents?

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