These are not your dad’s Washington Capitals currently leading the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins three games to two in the Eastern Conf. Qtr. finals. No sirree they are not. These Capitals, you’re Capitals, at least through five games, possess all three key post season ingredients necessary to win big games, big series, and ultimately the biggest prize the NHL has to offer if they can maintain this type of play.
Thanks to rookie Braden Holtby, who stopped 34 more Boston Bruins shots yesterday, Washington is getting great playoff goaltending. Thanks in part to a total team commitment, the Caps are playing stellar team defense, and Troy Brouwer’s goal with just 1:27 remaining was as timely a goal as you will see in the playoffs.
Do you want further proof? Not convinced the Capitals have great goaltending, better team defense and a timely offense. Let us look at their two other victories in the series in brief. They won Game 2 behind a 43 save performance from Holtby and took Game 4 after Holt-Beast stopped 44 pucks. Currently, the rookie back stopper is tearing up the circuit in the post season with 3-2 record, 949 save percentage and an even more impressive 1.81 GAA.
Of the goalies that have played four or more games during the post season, only the Coyotes Mike Smith (190) has made more saves (175) through five games. Holt-Beast is averaging a little fewer than 36.5 saves per contest.
Since the Alex Ovechkin era began for the Capitals in the post season, only Michael Neuvirth posted similar numbers during a five game post-season stretch. That was last season when Neuvy stonewalled the New York Rangers during round one of the playoffs. Neuvirth returned from his knee injury yesterday to back Holtby up in Boston, but the bench is where Neuvy is most likely going to stay. Through his first five games as a rookie last season vs. the Blueshirts, Neuvy had won the series, and posted a 1.60 GAA and .945 save percentage. He recorded a Game 2 shutout and allowed eight goals.
Semyon Varlamov got hot a few years back, but it was more of one hot game, one cold game, and Varly eventually folded during Game 7 vs. the Penguins allowing six goals, five in a shot 18-minute span.
With that said, it must be pointed out that the Rangers were not the 1980’s Edmonton Oilers. They ranked 15th in the NHL with 2.73 goals per game, and 16th in the league with 224 tallies. Boston ranked third in the league with 260 goals this past season, and was one of just three teams to average more than three goals per contest with a 3.17 goals per game during the 2011-12 campaign.
Whether Holtby can stay hot and finish off the Bruins remains to be seen, but Neuvirth’s collapsed during the second round vs. the Tampa Bay Lightning last year, and Varlamov three years ago, serves notice that there is a reason only five rookie back stoppers have led their teams to a Stanley Cup title.
In that series with Tampa last year, Neuvy was nothing like he was in the series vs. the Rangers and the Caps were swept. His GAA inflated to 3.75 and his save percentage dropped to a paltry .867. There are major differences between the two in their playing styles, one is a butterfly goalie and the other stands up more and squares to the shooter. Holtby’s puck handling has help neutralize a strong Bruins fore-check and allowed the Caps to get out of the defensive zone a lot quicker. However, the biggest difference between the two is the confidence their team plays with when either is between the pipes.
Washington takes more chances and plays with more confidence when No.70 is in the crease, which gives Caps fans hope that a two generation issue of not having great and consistent goaltending during the Stanley Cup playoffs could finally be ending.
The Caps are not scoring a ton of goals during the playoffs, but they are scoring timely goals, and they are preventing the Bruins from scoring first, and from getting a two-goal lead. Washington knows that is Boston gets a two-goal lead the game is over. Boston was 38-0-0 when they had a two-goal lead at any time of the game during the 2011-12 season. The Capitals also know that their trapping style of play is two times more effective when playing with a lead. This past season, the Capitals were 29-7-6 when scoring first, and since head coach Dale Hunter took over on Nov 28 and implemented his trap, were 25-3-5.
The only game of the series the Caps failed to score the first goal was during Game 1 when they lost 1-0 in overtime. Since then, Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson has scored first for the Caps and Alexander Semin has done it twice. Speaking of Semin, the Caps big three has been far more involved on the score sheet than has the Bruins top six goal scoring forwards from this season.
Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Ovechkin have combined to score five goals, and nine total points. That is one more point than the Bruins top six 20 goal scoring forwards from this past season. The Capitals have had a game winner from Backstrom, and one from Semin. They are also getting the secondary scoring they did not get last season vs. the Lightning in round two. Brooks Laich and Marcus Johansson have combined to score two goals and seven points in the series. Lets not forget about Jay Beagles big goal yesterday and Troy Brouwer's two pretty big timely tallies.
Washington’s timely goal scoring is indicative of how great they are playing defense. Washington has scored the game’s first goal twice in the second period, while holding the Bruins front six more than in check. The Bruins leading goal scorer this season, Tyler Seguin, has been held off the score sheet through the first five games of the series. Seguin is not alone. The five other members of the 20-goal club this season in Boston have combined to score just two times. Collectively, the six of them have played every game in the series and have combined for two goals and six assists. Not bad when you consider what they accomplished during the season.
So how has Washington done it, well, if it weren’t for Jeff Schultz (-4) and his blue line partner Dennis Wideman (-4), the Caps may already be sitting around and waiting to see whom they will play in round two. The rest of the team, well almost the rest, has played Dale Hunters trapping system to near perfection.
Another reason is that the Caps have not backed down to what was supposed to be the more physically superior Bruins team. Hunters squad has played physical hockey the way it was intended, and except for the Nicklas Backstrom hiccup at the end of Game 3, have played disciplined physical hockey. While the Bruins have outhit the Capitals, they have only done so by just five per contest (203-177). In fact, only Boston, New Jersey and the Phoenix Coyotes have thrown more hits in the playoffs than Washington.
Where the Capitals are frustrating the defending champions are in areas the Bruins did not expect to be frustrated in. The Bruins were the NHL’s regular season faceoff champs. Boston won 54.5 percent of all red dot draws this season compared to the Capitals, who won just 50 percent of theirs finishing 17th in the league. Although you would not know it by listening to NBC’s Pierre McGuire, the Caps have neutralized the Bruins in the circles and have won four more faceoffs through five games.
Blocking shots is not as important in the regular season as it is in the post season. Scoring chances are very limited in the post season due to the tight play and checking. A good shot blokig team like the Capitals can quickly force teams to retreat in their game plans. During the regular season not being a good shot blocking team can be masked, but not in the post season where good shot blocking teams tend to shine.
Interestingly, the top 3 shot blocking teams in the regular season all missed the playoffs (Islanders, Wild & Canadiens) and the Bruins were 23rd in the NHL. Washington finished sixth blocking shots this season. So far, through five games the Capitals have blocked 109 shots compared to the Bruins 71. Washington is the No.1 shot blocking team on the road in the post season having averaged almost 23 blocked shots per game at TD Bank Garden. When you combine the shot-blocking prowess of the Caps with the play of Braden Holtby, the Bruins are a frustrated offensive bunch.
Holtby and the Caps have frustrated Bruins scorers much the same way Jaroslav Halak did two years when the Montreal Canadiens took out the President trophy winning Capitals in seven games.
Players are also understanding their role and that includes team captain Alex Ovechkin, who played just 1 minute, 58 seconds in the final period and just 15 seconds in the final 14 minutes of regulation in Game 4. The reason is simple; Ovechkin is not in tune with the defensive system. He does not play disciplined defensive hockey, he does not know system. Ovechkin plays defense like a free lancing average linebacker or cornerback. He consistently leaves his man chasing the puck. Meanwhile, Hunter simply wanted his best defensive forwards on the ice while the Caps protected their one goal lead.
On Friday, Hunter spoke to reporters and said he was line matching and wanted to have his shutdown forwards out against the Bruins' top lines. "Of course I want to be out there, but it's his decision and I can appreciate [the] guys for how they play and we win the game," Ovechkin said. "It's the most important thing. It doesn't matter how many minutes I play. Of course I want to be there, but it's his decision."
This was not the type of series the Bruins expected Washington to play. In fact, the Bruins were flat out expecting to play division rival Ottawa, who wanted no part of Boston, but liked their chances vs. the Rangers.
Washington won three of four vs. the Bruins this year and Sens handled the Rangers just as well. After five games through both series the lower seeds lead and have the top two seeds on the ropes.
In the Caps case, it is simply that they are getting a great deal of success from the time tested playoff formula of great goaltending, great defense and timely goal scoring. Not to burst any bubbles but we have seen this before from the cup-less Caps, so today is huge in D.C. .
If history is indeed our greatest teacher and you believe in déjà vu, then this could actually be the Caps year. It has been widely published that these two teams have met just twice before in the post season (1990 & 1998) with the winner of each series eventually playing for the Stanley Cup.
When the Caps did it back in 1998, they played the Bruins in the first round of the playoffs that season. The Capitals won the first game of that series at home, but lost Game 2 before winning two in a row at the old Boston Garden. With a 3-1 series lead the capitals lost Game 5, 4-0 and appeared doomed to repeat the past, because evemn back then, playoff misery was alive and well in the nation’s capital.
using the formula, the Caps manged to win the series two nights later in Boston when Brian Bellows scored a little over 15 minutes in overtime beating former Caps goalie Byron Dafoe for the series winner. Washington would go onto win the Eastern Conf that season never needing more than six games to win a series.
Only the Washington Capitals could become cup contenders during a season when much was expected of them and little was actually accomplished. They needed 81 of the 82 games to get into the post season, and virtually no one gave them a chance to beat the defending Stanley Cup champions. The bruins are hurting, and clearly showing signs of a team that has played 194 games, including 25 playoff games (three seven game series) during a span of 18 months.
The Caps need to deliver the knockout blow today at home. The Capitals must salvage the disappointing season. Beating the Bruins will not erase the misery that was the 2011-12 season, and it will not make Caps fans forget about Montreal two years ago, and Tampa Bay last season. However, it will start to heal a few open wounds and give Caps fans hope that their team is what we thought it was all along, a Stanley Cup contender. Today is new start for the Ovechkin era Caps. If the Capitals blow this golden opportunity than there is no doubt that the ghosts of playoffs past will be appearing in articles and newspapers near you tomorrow.
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