Time For The Stars To Shine

Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkinin Moscow 2007These two men are the key to tonight’s game.

I took this photo in Moscow almost exactly six years ago; Russia had just defeated Sweden for the Bronze at the IIHF World Championships. More excitingly for Capitals fans, news had just broken that Backstrom would be joining the Capitals in the upcoming season, so we asked the pair to pose as “new” teammates for the first time.

Backstrom’s immediate contributions the following Fall delighted Caps fans almost as much as Ovechkin’s debut did. The Capitals had found their best center since the days when Coach Oates wore a jersey. The future of this center-winger combination seemed limitless.

Of course, that has not translated to post-season success—at least, not on the level one expects from such talent. Now, six years after they first became teammates, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have a chance to shine, in another Game 7 against a familiar opponent.

And shine they must, if the Capitals are to move on.

Obviously no two players can do it alone. The rest of the team must find that sweet spot: being aggressive, but not reckless, while patiently executing Coach Oates’ game plan. Braden Holtby must continue his stellar play. The team needs the discipline to commit fewer penalties (and hope for a balanced game from the men in stripes). They must do those little things, like crashing the net, that make all the difference.

But the team’s captain and his pivot can, and must, put so much pressure on the Rangers that the blueshirts are gasping their way to the locker room between periods.

Even if King Henrik manages to keep Ovechkin and Backstrom off the score sheet again, the pair needs to be so dominant that the exhausted Rangers start making mental mistakes… mistakes of the two-minute penalty variety. Mistakes that create openings for the rest of the Capitals.

Mistakes that lose hockey games.

So there can be no coasting around the edges; no putting the difficult pretty plays ahead of the high-percentage ugly ones. Tonight’s game is an opportunity for this uber-skilled pair to show their mettle and flat-out dominate on the ice.

Then, if the Capitals succeed, it starts all over again… but for now, for tonight, all those “one game at a time” and “it’s a one-game series” cliches ring true. And Ovechkin and Backstrom must lead the way.

Posted in Adam Oates, Alexander Ovechkin, New York Rangers, NHL, Nicklas Backstrom | 12 Comments

Blueprint Emerging?

Joel Ward has basically played the equivalent of one power play with some change this postseason on the Capitals’ man advantage.

His presence on the Capitals’ first power play of Friday’s game, however, was exactly what the team needed to break through an otherwise impenetrable Henrik Lundqvist. Eleven seconds of power play time, and Ward had the Capitals’ first and only goal in regulation Friday.

“No, my name was called,” Ward said when asked if Oates gave any explanation to him for putting him on during the man-advantage. “And I just went out there. I was excited to be out there, and I just tried to pay attention to details and get in my spot.”

What’s equally interesting, however, is how the Capitals got the power play. They crashed the net, and in the ensuing scrum, Brian Boyle got frustrated and took a slashing penalty.

Maybe they should look more into this crashing the net theme.

Ward and Mathieu Perreault, in fact—two bottom-six forwards—are now tied for the most points out of all Capitals forwards this postseason, with four each. Another third liner, Jason Chimera, is not far behind, and that’s after he struggled offensively for much of the season.

What does the third line seem to have figured out?

“We don’t sell ourselves short. Obviously, there’s other guys on the team that make big plays, but we just worry about ourselves. We’re not worried about who we’re playing against, or who we’re matched up against,” Ward said.

Perreault’s answer is balm for hockey purists: they throw a lot of pucks on net, they crash the net, try to create traffic.

The other Capital tied with Perreault and Ward for most points is defenseman Mike Green. Occasionally, those shots from the point will be perfectly placed or too difficult for a goalie to track in traffic. Other times, the puck will mange to find its way to the back of the net amidst the scrum of skates, helmets, jerseys and limbs flying in front. Everything in between, Lundqvist usually stops.

Mike Ribeiro had the last laugh on everyone Friday, however, when he scored the game winner for the Capitals in overtime. It’s the teams’ second overtime of the series.

Conditioning wise, Nicklas Backstrom said he thought the Capitals looked good and that it looked like the team had a lot of energy.

It’s going to be interesting to see if Washington can swing this momentum to a Game 6 closeout in the Rangers’ home building.

Posted in 2 Points | 4 Comments

Capitals Relished Intensity in Game 2’s Closing Moments

Nail-biting, heart-pounding hockey.

And the Capitals relished it.

The Capitals and Rangers fought long and hard, literally, Saturday afternoon, culminating in an overtime that saw Mike Green make the only successful shot past either team’s goalie all game.

For those watching, the pressure hovered like a 7th man above the arena as the third period progressed and the scoreboard remanined 0-0.  Exciting, intense, cliffhanger would be the vocabulary that comes to mind—fun, not so much.

But that’s what separates the players from the spectators.

“It’s fun. It’s playoff hockey. That’s the way it’s supposed to be,” Marcus Johansson said of the game.

“It’s exciting,” Troy Brouwer said afterwards of the high-pressure situation the two teams found themselves in during the third. with the caveat that guys have to make sure they don’t let the situation overwhelm them.

In fact, Brouwer said the “older guys”—he didn’t specify who that might be—did a great job Saturday of making sure everyone was even-keeled and got a healthy dose of positive reinforcement.

“Just talking, making sure everyone’s communicating, making sure guys are getting pats on the back, not getting on each other if there’s a mistake, because the last thing we need is guys getting frustrated with each other,” Brouwer elaborated on how the “older guys” accomplished this.

He and Johansson weren’t the only ones eating the pressure for breakfast.

“It feels great,” Eric Fehr said when asked about that element in the third period. “Those are the games you want to be a part of. That’s the playoff hockey you expect. We were prepared for it, and we played our system to a “T”, and we played it well.”

And oh, boy, was it playoff hockey. The only object the puck had trouble finding during the 60+minutes was the net. Both teams always seemed to be right near the puck—the Rangers usually blocking it, the Caps usually passing it.

Fehr, for one, was impressed with that part of the Rangers’ game.

“They block so well, it’s like they got six goalies out there,” said Fehr, who himself had a blocked shot that garnered him a postgame shoutout from Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby.

It’s going to take not only figuring out Henrik Lundqvist, but figuring out how to beat the Rangers’ shot-blocking acumen consistently, for the Capitals to keep getting on the board in this series.

Neither Lundqvist nor Holtby were short of spectacular, though it’s doubtful either would characterize their performance that way. For fans of goaltending, it was a treat to watch both goalies manage the puck with ease.

“No,” Holtby said when asked if this was the most comfortable he’s ever felt in net. “Tonight, it wasn’t a very straining game on a goalie. … I felt comfortable out there, but there’s still room for improvement.”

Special teams came through again for Washington in overtime, with Green’s goal coming on the power play.  The Capitals’ marked improvement in the penalty killing unit was something we’ve been talking about at OFB for the past two weeks, and helped the team fend off the first penalty of overtime.

Just one request: may we never see another puck over the glass penalty from either team again.

Posted in 2 Points, Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer | 6 Comments

Caps Learned Their Lesson About the 2-Goal Lead

The atmosphere is one of importance. The crowd noise reverberates through your body like the music at a rock concert. You can tell the players feel it—they’ll strain a little bit harder, focus a little more intently.

It’s playoff hockey.

The second period of Thursday’s game at the Verizon Center was one that dreams are made of–or nightmares. Going into the period, the New York Rangers were up 1-0 on the Capitals thanks to a Carl Hagelin shot that redirected off John Erskine and past Braden Holtby.

But that was about to change.

The period was littered with penalties—the two teams combined for seven total on those 20 minutes alone. And on the Rangers’ fourth penalty of the game, the Capitals’ power play finally broke through and evened the score on an Alex Ovechkin rebound shot.

The Capitals would score two more goals—Marcus Johansson beating Lundqvist again, and Jason Chimera with a crazy redirect—but the period was far from a leisurely skate. At one point, the Capitals’s power play looked so awful that one would be forgiven thinking it was the Mites on Ice. At another point, the Capitals’ John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Nicklas Backstrom had to fend off a 5-on-3 disadvantage when Eric Fehr ended up in the box for a short period of time alongside Martin Erat.

But the Capitals penalty kill remained perfect all night, and the team managed to stay out of the box in the third.

The vital stat, however, is that the Capitals held onto their two-goal lead—something the guys indicate they’ve learned the hard way.

“Luckily, throughout the season, we’ve had two-goal leads like that, and that’s what you’ve got to do—you’ve got to learn from them,” Steve Oleksy said postgame. “I think everybody’s played long enough where unfortunately you blow a 2-goal lead, sometimes, but you learn a lot throughout the season, and that’s when you really know what to expect in the playoffs.”

“You get excited, but you look at the clock, and there’s still 25, 30 minutes left in the game, and you can’t give up. We did that a few times this season …  and lost 2 or 3-goal leads,” Troy Brouwer said. “We learned our lesson enough, and we’ve got to take that experience and use it in the playoffs.”

The Capitals had a solid game up and down the roster. The first and third lines scored, as well as the power play unit. Individuals had moments of brilliance, such as when John Erskine had an excellent one-on-one battle against Derek Stepan to break up a play in the Capitals’ zone. Braden Holtby picked up right where he left off last postseason.

And it’s only just the beginning.

Posted in 2 Points, Adam Oates, NHL playoffs | 4 Comments

The Creation of a Culture for Winning

Cup'pa JoeIt’s a queer feeling, moving about Washington in this the season of the calendar of our perpetual discontent, and actually feeling good about the Capitals’ chances. This morning, well post cherry blossoms, I have a startling message to convey: We ought to be optimistic. Not cautiously optimistic, but full-blown optimistic.

There are a handful of key attributes to the very winning Washington Capitals these days, but for me the overarching storyline seems to be that of the Russian Renaissance. Alexander Ovechkin’s metamorphosis, in rather short order, from skunk to savior, trumps all other explanations for a surge that has to have impressed even the brass at the Pentagon. About a month into this abbreviated season Ovechkin was outside the top 50 in league scorers. By the end of April he’d re-earned designation as . . . best hockey player in the world.

I was forced to wonder: Where was this the past three years? Why was it hidden so? If you want you can attach special emphasis to Adam Oates’ position switch, his new scheme, or speculate that long-awaited and much-needed maturation for our captain had at last arrived. I’m inclined more to an explanation that’s part cosmic and spiritual, part primal . . . and hormonal:  Nothing motivates Mars quite like coveted Venus. And that’s not just my opinion.

So the name of our no. 1 shutdown Dman this spring is . . . Cupid.

A week or so ago I was set to write here that the Dynamic Duo of Ovechkin and Mike Green were so game-changing dialed in that it almost didn’t matter who the Capitals faced in round one. I haven’t changed my mind on that; the Dynamic Duo’s numbers the past month or so are ludicrous, outlandish. It’s as if at long last the admonitions related to fleeting opportunity for glory have been taken to heart by both. But in recent days local media to its credit has dialed in on the backdrop for the great turnaround, and honed in on precisely that which has been my bane in following this team for years: The Capitals’ organization badly needed a culture change. The culture actually was of greater importance than George McPhee’s roster tinkering. And in the spring of 2013 it’s arrived.

D.C Hockey’s Holy Trinity of Adam Oates, Olie Kolzig, and Calle Johansson has, in this room, serious street cred, serious crest cred, and most importantly the Midas touch. I remain of the opinion that it was imperative for Dale Hunter to come in last year and quash Animal House and its related unhealthy cliques, but more needed to be done, on and off the ice, and it’s abundantly clear that Oates and his staff have done it. Oates probably won’t win many Jack Adams votes this summer, but he should. Oates has seemingly engineered a system of perfectly blended deft puck distribution, motion and flow, and the proper placement of his elite skill in the spacing needed to exact the most damage. But he’s also managed to save a general manager from himself.

I don’t think we ought to ignore the role that Providence/Divine Puck Fortune has played in the turnaround. When Green and Orlov were out for a wide swath of the season the Capitals received thoroughly unexpected, significant impact minutes from no-names Kundratek, Oleksy, and later on Jack Hillen. None of the three were on anybody’s radar in January. The Capitals still are without a reliable shutdown presence on their blueline, and that ultimately could be their undoing again in spring, but notably they have managed to change the culture on the blueline as well. It’s a blueline that’s notably more mobile. It’s also one that, with John Erskine earning top 4 minutes, has a wee bit more brawn in it. Notably, Jeff Schultz is permanently banished.

No pro sport’s postseason changes in style and substance as much as pro hockey’s does. It’s positively true that the Capitals surged in part due to the division company they kept — no doubt you noticed the bottom three finishers in the East this season were all from the Southeast (and lodged there by a healthy margin). But the Caps won big games on the road in Montreal (one a blowout), and most especially, when their proverbial backs were genuinely against the wall, staring at a back-to-back slate in Winnipeg March 21 and 22, they demonstrated a breathtaking exertion of will imposition, one I haven’t seen in years. It was a big-series mismatch, and the Caps haven’t looked back since. That for me was the turnaround moment, and when you think about it there hasn’t been much in the way of a clunker since.

It’s possible that in the more confined space and whistle-diminished environs of the postseason Ovechkin and Green will revert to more mortal skaters. If that happens, all bets are off, cause this is a hockey club being carried by its big guns, and it’s a hockey club with clear deficiencies. Virtuosity and excellence can’t be sustained forever. But we’ve no reason this morning to think that a largely healthy Capitals club can’t best a still scoring-challenged Rangers club. In the close games of the coming weeks our big stars seem sure to shine. That’ll make the difference. From every angle of consideration it appears that at long last our Big Guns have realized the legacy-urgency of the moment, and they’re embracing it.

Caps in five.

Posted in Adam Oates, Alexander Ovechkin, Dale Hunter, George McPhee, Mike Green, Morning cup-a-joe, New York Rangers, playoff hockey, Steve Oleksy, Washington Capitals | 7 Comments

Chimera Says Capitals “Really Earned” Postseason Berth

They didn’t end up with the goals, but the Capitals’ third line of Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and Eric Fehr was on the ice when Boston took three penalties against Washington in the third period.

Those penalties were crucial, as they proved to be the kickstart the Capitals needed to finally break past Boston goalie Tuukka Rask. The final score was 3-2 in Washington’s favor in overtime, and Eric Fehr had the game winner.

Mike Green, meanwhile, drew one penalty and scored on consecutive power plays back in the third. Green’s initial goal was the first time the Capitals made it on the board all night, having trailed Boston by 2 going into the final period.

But what goes up must come down, and Green found himself in the box at the end of the third period for hooking, which meant he joined Alex Ovechkin and the Bruins’ Brad Marchand, who had already been called for roughing. That put the Capitals at a 4-on-3 disadvantage, then a 4-on-5 disadvantage when Marchand and Ovechkin got out, and then, when Green’s penalty carried into overtime, back to a 4-on-3 disadvantage.

It was, needless to say, a busy time for the penalty kill, which didn’t give up a goal to Boston all night. John Carlson and Karl Alzner, with Troy Brouwer and Nick Backstrom alternating, handled the crucial penalty kill in the final seconds of the third and into overtime, with Braden Holtby anchoring the team in net.

“It’s coming together. We still have some work to do,” Holtby said when asked how much more confidence there was in the penalty killing unit compared to the beginning of the season.

For the Capitals to play like they did Saturday, with the result they had, shows just how far they’ve come this season. A win like this would have seemed near impossible from the January, and even February, Capitals.

“We couldn’t ask for a better—the way we ended the season, I think, we fought our way in again, and really earned our spot,” Chimera said when asked if this is the most comfortable he’s been going into the playoffs. “Every line seems to be contributing.”

This morning at practice, Karl Alzner tried to sum up what he’d tell a team struggling mightily at the beginning of the season was the most important thing they should focus on to turn things around, as Washington managed.

“It depends on the team. For us, …  I guess the main thing is we were thinking while we were playing, whereas we weren’t just playing to have fun, to play the game, to worry about winning that next game. We were always thinking about, ‘Don’t make this mistake, don’t make that mistake.’”

Alzner said once you get rid of “all that extra” and worry about simply playing the game, it comes to you.

“We were so messed up in the head at the beginning of the season,” he continued. “We weren’t even thinking let’s go out and have fun. We were kind of nervous, I think, and playing the game a little bit gun shy, ‘cause we didn’t want to wreck the system, we didn’t want to get scored against. And as soon as we forgot about that and start seeing a couple of wins pile together, it was more about just having fun and being with the guys and being a team.”

Posted in 2 Points | 3 Comments

Home Stretch: Caps Get a Taste of Playoff-Style Hockey in Thursday’s Loss

It seems odd to lead off talking about a game the Capitals lost on a penalty kill in overtime by praising said penalty kill units.

But if it hadn’t been for some quality shorthanded time by Washington Thursday, a tight contest could have devolved into a serious letdown.

In their 2-1 loss to Ottawa, the Capitals ended up with their biggest total of minor penalties since March 22, and their largest total of penalty minutes overall since February 21, although Thursday’s numbers included a 10-minute misconduct for Jason Chimera.

Still, that’s a tall order for a team ranked 28th in the league in penalty killing, even considering one of the penalties was a matching minor with Ottawa.

But between the bookends of an excellent penalty kill the Capitals sustained in the third period Tuesday—a penalty kill that safeguarded a playoff berth—and the 4-on-3 mishap in overtime Thursday, the Capitals’ unit has looked sharp. The Senators got only 8 shots the entire night on the power play, and the only one that went in was during 4-on-3 in overtime.

Karl Alzner has noticed a shift in shorthanded play as well.

“We put a little more pressure on them,” Alzner said. “We’ve been a little bit better, stronger in the corners, better at making plays to get out of the zone.”

It’s often said that your best penalty killer is your goaltender, and Michal Neuvirth gave new meaning to the old saying Thursday. The stellar play continued not only when the team was shorthanded, but during the entire 60-plus minutes, as he stopped shots with ease and never seemed out of position.

The emotional cards were, so to speak, stacked against the Capitals at the outset. They had ostensibly 120 minutes of hockey left to play in the regular season. Guaranteed a playoff spot, the team was caught, for almost the first time since January, playing a game that didn’t mean anything when it came to admittance into the postseason. It was a recipe for a letdown.

The result was far from as bad as it could have been, but still not good enough for a win.

Though it was minus the atmosphere the building carried Tuesday when the Capitals clinched their spot in the postseason, the game looked, in fact, like classic playoff-style hockey–low scoring, strong goaltending, rising tempers, and defenses that, even when they allowed a veritable volley of shots (cough, Washington), still did a decent job making sure they weren’t quality chances.

“It was much closer, definitely” Alzner said of whether it felt like playoff hockey. “It seems like all their games are kind of like playoff hockey. It’s just their style. They’re battling for their lives there, and we’re battling to try and eliminate somebody, so there’s a lot on the line.”

Alex Ovechkin was the only Capital to score, on a goal that saw him cut from right wing to left across the front of Ottawa’s net and wait just long enough to shoot the puck past Craig Anderson, who made the mistake of committing too far to blocking Ovechkin on the right side.

 

Posted in Karl Alzner, Washington Capitals | Tagged , | 3 Comments