A season fraught with promise and peril delivered both in game 3 Monday night, but in the end, Washington’s roster, still not yet assembled for durable playoff prosperity, succumbed to one proven to be.
Most worrisome in this moment: the mental meltdown of the Capitals’ premiere pivot. This is postseason number five for Nicklas Backstrom, and in a series as even as this one, the Capitals need him on the ice, making game-changing plays, just as he did Saturday in Boston. Instead, last night, with the game tied late and the series’ pendulum soon to swing likely in a decisive way, Nick lost his head, not once but twice.
First he delivered a senseless and needless crosscheck deep in the Bruins’ zone with just over 3 minutes to play, eradicating momentum the Caps had just achieved from Brooks Laich’s (three points on the evening, and the game’s no. 1 star) game-tying tally — a tally Backstrom brilliantly quaterbacked. Then, as the final horn sounded, he high-sticked Rich Peverley in the throat/head, earning a match penalty necessitating a commissioner’s review. Backstrom could be suspended for game 4 Thursday night.
This is a Capitals team conspicuously thin in the middle of the ice. General Manager George McPhee earlier this spring offered the view that with Backstrom in the lineup the Caps could compete with any team in the East. That may or may not be accurate, but it’s clear that to have any chance at all the Caps must have Backstrom in the lineup — especially when it’s 3-3 late in a pivotal playoff game. In the most crucial moment of the season to date, Nicklas Backstrom took himself out of the lineup last night, and if he’s forced to watch game 4 from the press box he will have a lot to answer for, particularly if his club is on the short end of a 3-1 series slate.
The Capitals are weak at center, but they also must try and mask a physically unimposing blueline — a perpetual problem, that. In games 1 and 2 of this series Dale Hunter and Jim Johnson devised an effective scheme to keep turmoil to a minimum in front of Braden Holtby: they had forwards hurry back and help congest the middle of the ice, keeping the Bruins’ attack to the outside. Additionally, the Capitals blueline had to make quick and precise decisions with the puck in their own end to keep from being bottled up and overwhelmed by the bigger, big-hitting Bruins. Big minutes for the big four. It worked.
Monday night, they got away from all of that.
The Capitals are demanding big minutes from their top four on the blueline, and they are attempting to minimize their exposure to the cement-footed, instincts- and skills-challenged Jeff Schultz. The Caps more have to hide Sarge (9:52 TOI last night) than the Bruins do Joe Corvo (12:28). Through three games there are heavy minutes lodged on the shoulders of Mike Green (27 minutes plus on average), Roman Hamerlik (24 +), Karl Alzner (25 +), and John Carlson (23 +). Dennis Wideman, Schultz’s partner, is earning nearly 18 minutes of ice a night. Schultz, like his partner a a team-worst -4 in the series, manages his minus skating in just 13 minutes a night. That’s about 13 minutes a night too many, given what the Caps have surrendered while sidelining Dmitri Orlov.
Even Ivan Carter can see what most of us see re. #55.
A conspiracy theorist would look at the sweaters assigned to Schultz and Joel Ward (8 shifts and 5:20 of ice in game 3) in this series and suggest that the team’s executive bean counters have issued a decree that McPhee must be held to account for the grotesque contracts awarded those two. Orlov’s exclusion, you might fairly contend, is predicated on his being wet behind the ears. But at least with this series’ home games and the final line change the coaching staff could match him mostly against Boston’s fourth line, and limit his exposure. And to the extent the strategy is to move the puck quickly out of the defensive end, in a finesse system of counter-attack, Orlov is infinitely more skilled at that than Sarge.
Ward simply can’t play. His signing represents the nadir of George McPhee’s grab-bag approach to addressing roster weakpoints. Given his limited minutes and impact in this series, can it really be the case that the team is better off wasting a sweater on Ward rather than moderating the minutes of playoff veteran Mike Knuble? We do know from three games that this is a very even series. Should the Caps lose it it will be fair to wonder what impact Orlov and Knuble could have had, given the disastrous returns from Schultz and Ward.
But the series is far from over. The Caps badly need Nicklas Backstrom Thursday night. Fingers crossed. They need to return to their magnificently disciplined ways of games 1 and 2 in Boston. And they also need continued fine form from their captain. Remember two springs back, after Ovechkin’s suspension for his hit on Chicago’s Brian Campbell, and how everyone — including his coach — threw him under the bus for playing every game “as if it were game 7”? This postseason, Alexander Ovechkin is hitting everything that moves (ferociously) and scoring. Turns out, it’s not an either-or proposition. Ovi has been liberated at last. May he never change.