24 April, 2014

So Where Are These Guys?

Hello All,

We’ve been on hiatus since the playoffs for a variety of reasons (including a few folks’ relocations to new cities). We’ll still be active via Twitter and — when the spirit moves one of us — post on the OFB site. But our days of game-by-game coverage are behind us. It’s been a fun seven years (!), and readers like you are the reason we’ve kept at it even this long.

Rest assured, we remain fervent supporters of our Washington Capitals, and appreciate all the opportunities this labor of love has provided. The Caps should be grateful to have the best fan base and blogging community in the NHL. We’ll still chime in now and then… we may not be writing regularly anymore, but our hearts remain with this team and its fans.

Let’s Go Caps!


The OFB Team


Hockey: The Mixed Martial Arts of Curling

John Hodgman has a little fun with our favorite sport in his new comedy special “RAGNAROK”, which debuted on Netflix today:

La Canfora Unloads, Again

Former Washington Post Capitals reporter Jason La Canfora was back on 106.7 the Fan today, ostensibly to discuss his present beat, the NFL, but studio host Danny Rouhier, to his credit, had his guest weigh in on the latest Capitals’ collapse. Dan Steinberg has a full reckoning of the segment here, and it’s stunning in its candor and the scope of its condemnation. You can listen to the actual audio here.

La Canfora

Choice excerpts:

  • La Canfora, on Martin Erat: ” . . . the trade for Erat? I mean, is that gonna pay any dividends? He was a passenger when he was healthy. You traded a top prospect for that?”
  • “I don’t really know what their identity is [emphasis OFB's]. You’re just constantly swapping out goaltenders, you’re constantly swapping out coaches, and you’re not really changing your culture or changing your locker room or making your team any more difficult to face in the playoffs. I mean, it kind of blows my mind. They’ve been NO more difficult to face in the playoffs for how long has Ted owned the team? They went to the Finals in ’98; you can go back to ’99 and they’re kind-of sort-of the same team.”
  • On the Ovechkin captaincy: “Clearly there’s something wrong there and something adrift,” he said. “I think you look at how you they put their team together, and who is the team captain. If your team captain isn’t really a team captain, then is there a covert team captain, a guy who actually can keep him in check in the locker room?”
  • ” . . . every year it’s just ‘Ooh, a bad break here, and oh darn, we hit a post, and otherwise we’d be hoisting another Stanley Cup . . . They’re nowhere near [winning a Cup] . . . And we’ll see when these divisions change how it works out for them. But they had a gift for whatever — eight or ten years — of playing in this division with a bunch of teams that fiscally just couldn’t or wouldn’t compete. And it’s resulted in what? A couple of playoff round wins, and that’s about it. So I don’t know. I would say that’s pretty disappointing.”

Managing, and Excusing, the Ever Repeating Loop of Mediocrity

Cup'pa Joe

“I hope the Caps win a Stanley Cup before I’m dead.” — Kevin Fletcher, age 7, Alexandria, Virginia, earlier this week, relayed by his father on Facebook.

The definition of precocious there.

Good luck with that, Kevin.

This Henrik Lundqvist offered to the Washington Post deep into Monday night: “The great thing is we managed to win the series without playing our absolute best.”

If that doesn’t frighten you about the present and future of the Washington Capitals, nothing will. Lundqvist was commendably frank and spot on: His Rangers club, one that had to especially scratch and claw its way — utilizing the final hours of the NHL regular season — merely to qualify for the postseason, could best the Caps without home ice while receiving AWOL performances from its biggest stars: Rick Nash, Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan. Captain Callahan, a likely leader for the American entry in next year’s Olympics, tallied his first goal of the series in Monday night’s third period of what was already a blowout by the visitors.

They were able to do this because third-liner Derick Brassard — a virtual throw-in in the deal that sent Marian Gaborik to Columbus — outscored the Capitals’ first line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Marcus Johansson.

So it’s come to this: A 6 seed in the East can bring its B game and better our Beasts of the Southeast. Again. Funny to think that a mere two weeks ago there was haughty talk about town of taking it to Pittsburgh this spring. The Washington Post’s Tom Boswell addressed this line of thinking Wednesday morning in an evisceration of the organization I’ll be quoting liberally this morning: “what universe are they living in?”

What the Rangers did to succeed — box it in tight, hurl bodies hundreds of times in front of pucks, make life in front of the net miserable (aka HockeyUgly, which in the NHL postseason is quite beautiful), patiently counter-punch — was strikingly similar to what the 8th-seeded Habs did to D.C. in round one of 2010. A bit of a broken record, wouldn’t you say? The names of the coaches here have changed, a few of the names of the perimeter players have changed, but the maestro remains. Convene the premature end-of-season presser, ladle out the excuses, rinse, repeat.

The early excuses this offseason got a bit creative, and included a conspiracy theory against the Caps articulated by the team captain, heretofore believed to have appreciably matured during this abbreviated season. The GM, for good measure, more or less sided with him. Coach Tortorella, exercising the vanquisher’s prerogative, gazed upon Washington’s fourth or fifth alleged scandal of intrigue this spring and mocked.

I will, without tinfoil cap, weigh in on the series’ officiating: it fairly sucked. It had curious, sustained periods of utterly aberrational one-sided-ness. Then again, this is the NHL. But we deserve better from our captain — in performance and reflection — and I think Tortorella’s not being entirely petty when he suggests that the Caps’ focus on the zebras distracts somewhat from the larger mission.

Moreover, the Capitals have earned the disrespect they perceive to receive from the league when moments get big. They’re legacy recipients of dissing. When the Pittsburgh Penguins have queer arena bookings in spring, it’s the Capitals who are asked to accommodate (jeopardizing their competitive integrity in the process). When the league expands to the American Southeast, the Capitals are cherry-picked to join the newcomers, watering down well developed Mid-Atlantic rivalries and neutering the appeal of the home slate. Remember three years back when the 2011 Winter Classic was announced, and how Mr. Leonsis made a point of boasting that he had extracted from the league “a promise” to bring that game to D.C., and in short order? Well four years later there will be six outdoor NHL games contested next season, and not only won’t the Capitals be hosting one, they won’t be playing in any of them.

Until they prove otherwise, the Capitals — for good reason — are viewed by the league as Small Timey, an entity that can be trifled with. And when you have two faces of organizational leadership proffer conspiracy theories in postseason pressers, that only reinforces Small Timey sensibilities. Respect in this league isn’t easily earned; going on 40 seasons in the NHL the Capitals most assuredly haven’t earned it.

I have a ton of respect for the heroic Boston Bruins this spring, and even greater appreciation for what Monday night’s miracle likely meant to that sports-mad city this particular spring. Being in Verizon Center Monday night, I was unable to view Boston’s unprecedented, unfathomable third period comeback in that game 7. I saw the hero goals when I got home. With Rask pulled and less than 2 minutes remaining, the immovable Milan Lucic made it 4-3, swatting home a rebound from about 18 inches out in front of the Leaf cage. The tying goal came some 30 seconds later, with the equally immovable Chara serving as a crease screen for Patrice Bergeron. Intriguing strategy in desperation moments of a postseason, crashing the net with brute brawn. Be nice if that was tried in D.C. one of these years.

Very interesting sidebar to that Boston Miracle: After game 6 Sunday night the Bruins learned that their charter home was sidelined with mechanical issues. That’s no time for serious travel woes. Recall the Capitals’ travel travails in the leadup to game 5 of their 2010 series with Montreal (Fog-gate). The Bs on Sunday quickly decided to make a restful night of it in Toronto and travel home the next morning. The Caps of course opted to leave their players on a stranded jet for hours and ultimately deliver them home around 5 a.m., subsequently missing out on a practice with that series’ momentum swiftly altered. Winning organizations, I posit, win for reasons large and small.

In the early hours of yet another colossal Capitals collapse, however, some influential natives aren’t stomaching the annual double-speak, sophistry, and — again quoting Boz, “delusional denial” — coming out of Kettler. Boz, in fact, led the wood-shedding Wednesday:

“When you have a general manager who has been in his job 16 years but hasn’t been to the Stanley Cup finals since his first year and that GM builds teams designed to win in the regular season and fill up the rink for his boss but not to weather the demands of the playoffs, why would you think he’s going to win it all?

“When you have a star who was made captain not because he deserved it but in the hopes that it would prod him to get in better shape, cut down his carousing and show some leadership, why be shocked when he scores fewer goals (one) in a first-round exit than Rangers fourth-liner Arron Asham?

Clever artwork by Jamie Mottram

Clever artwork by Jamie Mottram

Interesting themes there, no? How many GMs in contemporary pro sports avoid a pink slip over a decade-and-a-half plus without ever achieving anything? And the matter of the fraudulent captaincy rises again. Mere weeks ago we were supposed to believe that running roughshod over the Southleast — earning yet another Trophy for Trying banner — was vindication. Boz has something to say about this, too: “it’s the soft Southeast Division universe, a kind of parallel world where you play pigeons all season, then meet birds of prey in May. Next year, the Caps will fight for a playoff spot against the Pens, Flyers, Rangers, Isles, Devils, Columbus and the ’Canes. Life is about to get a lot harder.” It is indeed.

Already of course the team is pitching optimism for next season: Laich and Erat (would you do that trade again?) will be healthy, the blueline is solidified in a comparative sense (compared to the previous 8-10 seasons), Oates is a fine coach, and he gets Ovi and Ovi gets him. But every spring reveals essential flaws that architect McPhee can’t or won’t acknowledge. Marcus Johansson is a really nice kid, a wonderful skater, and he works really hard, but he is not an elite talent. Wonderful passes come his way from across the ice and most often they die on his blade. In this organization he skates on the top line. John Erskine again had a season whose sum was greater than his component parts, but he is not a top 4 blueliner in this league. But he is on this team.

The Capitals lose when it matters not because of conspiracies against them but precisely because of how they’re assembled. And perpetual losing when it matters, which is this organization’s legacy, is an added burden every rendition in red skates with, no matter how spiritedly they suggest otherwise. That plays a part in their choking away so many game 7s, so many sizable series leads. The region now has red-clad 7-year-olds who know this.

Here’s the Post’s Mike Wise cutting to the chase: “Taught early in this business to root for good stories instead of teams, I nonetheless feel the Capitals are annually telling me what they keep telling their emotionally beaten-down fans: Don’t get your hopes too high because we’ll eventually dredge out your aortic valve with a backhoe.”

Common Theme in Caps’ Watershed Moments This Season: Pittsburgh

The Capitals’ first season under Coach Adam Oates has come to a close, and it’s fascinating to see the storyline that took this team from ugly beginning to ugly end—with a lot of magnificent moments in between, and some positive takeaways and question marks for the future.

Actually, this season’s story began even earlier, according to Brooks Laich’s chronology, with the thread of accountability—no player mattering more than anyone else—reaching back to Dale Hunter’s regime.  By the time the Capitals had a chance to build on that team concept come January 2013, however, there even more elements to figure out: a new coaching staff, a new system, a shortened season.

And it wasn’t pretty, as the Capitals found themselves in last place.

“When we weren’t winning, when we weren’t doing things well early on in the year, we weren’t as much of a team as we needed to be, off the ice and on the ice,” Laich said of the early part of the season.

Appropriately enough, the perennial villain for Washington fans, the Penguins, was the one who gave the story a turn, if by no other virtue than where the Pens fell on the NHL schedule.

Laich calls the day after the loss to Pittsburgh that put the team at 2-8-1 “a big day for this organization.”

“For our group of guys, there was a lot of stuff that was addressed on that day, and what was said and who said it is best left behind scenes, but that was a big day, and from there, we turned things around,” Laich says.

But this was no wave-the-magic-wand-and-go-to-the-ball turnaround. They won three games, then sputtered. Yet Oates, or, as Jay Beagle says, “Oatsey,” stayed positive through the entire roller coaster that was this season, surprising all the players with how he handled said roller coaster. Beagle mentioned he’d show players some positive video clips after a loss, which the forward says not many coaches do.

The team hit another mile marker mile marker when it traveled to Pittsburgh again in March—and lost again, this time 2-1. It was, oddly enough, one of the most fruitful losses in recent memory, as the Capitals followed up with a back-to-back sweep of a division rival, the Winnipeg Jets, also fighting for a spot in the postseason.

“Sometimes you just need a spark, a jolt, and you know, brothers fight a little bit, but at the same time, you’re always on the same side,” Laich says.

From there, the story gets much more rosy for a time. But it’s worth pausing for a moment to note Laich’s “brothers” analogy, because it’s the same one Adam Oates used at the end of March when questioned about how close the locker room was.

And it’s usually not in a Hallmark card “we love each other like brothers” way—it’s used to show that squabbles happen, but in the end, the name on the front of the jersey is the same.

“They seem very close. … I also think they’re family, they’re brothers, so brothers argue too, so there’s days where they’re not close,” was Oates’ quote as his team finally found a groove.

Backtracking a bit, those two games in Winnipeg kicked off in the win-loss column what would become the rejuvenation of the Capitals’ season. It went so well, until a 5-0 loss in Game 7 brought every Capitals fan back to their annual nightmare. Oates said Alex Ovechkin texted him 20 times till 2 a.m. after the Game 7 loss.

And now, the offseason timeline begins far earlier than any Capital would like. For manager and coach, that’s one thing. For the players, it looks different. Oates has, throughout the season, discussed with players how to individually improve their games.  And that’s work they can take with them into the summer.

Beagle, for example, says he’ll try things like bag skating with the puck, and work on handling the puck more on his stick. For the goaltenders, it’s slightly different. Braden Holtby said it’s extremely hard to get “an honest practice” in the offseason, and thus the little intricacies in goaltending are easier worked on in season. The offseason, for him, is more about mental preparation and clearing his head.

Meanwhile, Oates is preaching the Boston Bruins’ recent history to the team—the times the Bruins hadn’t capitalized in their years surrounding the Stanley Cup triumph.

And, mark this quote from Wednesday down for future reference:  “We’re gonna win a Cup here,” Mike Green said.

That timeline has yet to be written.

The Excuse That Won’t Hold Water; a Silver Lining; Breaking Down the Broken-Down Defense; And a Lesson in Execution

Sitting, waiting, and waiting at Metro Center for an Orange line train to come and take me home after Monday’s game concluded, I was reminded there are still a few things in Washington less effective than the Capitals offense was that evening. (I also cover politics.)

Some of the best analysis and reflections of what happened in the blowout Game 7, and what went so right and so wrong in the season, will come after the players and coaches talk more extensively to the media on exit day later this week.

Right now, the result produced a cocktail of shock and awe and bitter disappointment in the postgame pressers, which effectively shut down any public in-depth analysis from Adam Oates and company Monday.

But when you lose an elimination game 5-0, there’s a lot of analyzing to do.

There was, indeed, an exquisite performance by the Rangers’ goaltender to consider.  He gave the Capitals nothing on 35 shots.

But, frankly, I don’t buy Lundqvist-stopped-the-kitchen-sink a good enough excuse for the Capitals losing. It’s not like Henrik Lundqvist being good is a huge shock. You know that going into the series. Your gameplan needs to be equipped to beat Lundqvist on his best day.  Yes, accomplishing that may be akin to trying to get Kate Moss to eat, but, as Joel Ward pointed out recently, Lundqvist is a human, just like everyone else. So it’s possible to succeed against him.

In fact, Mike Green said after Monday’s game that when the Capitals stuck to their strategy, that’s when they found that success, and that “at times, we kind of got away from that [our discussions of how to beat him].”

So where Lundqvist really won was his execution was better than the entire Washington roster. Whether that’s because of will, or mental fortitude, or his experience, or coaching or training or that “x” factor that makes him Henrik Lundqvist, that’s something for a longer discussion this summer.

I don’t think this execution drum  is a nuanced difference, though, and it’s helpful when considering what the Capitals need to get themselves over this playoff stonewall.  You may have the perfect gameplan and all the answers, but if you can’t execute it, you’ll always be sitting at home far earlier than you planned.

“We knew what we were supposed to do. We couldn’t just quite do it. And that’s a tough thing, tough pill to swallow, when you know how to beat a team, you just can’t quite get it,” Alzner said in general of the Capitals’ execution.

Of course, all this doesn’t explain the 5 goals at the other end that the Capitals gave up.

Gone was the tight defense that the Capitals displayed in games 1, 2 and 5.  The second line, meanwhile, was on the ice for three goals against.  Two of those were with the defensive pairing of Erskine and Carlson. Mike Green was on the ice for three goals against (though the first one, to be fair, was kind of a bad slate of luck as some Capitals players took untimely tumbles to the ice outside of their zone, which meant Washington was woefully out of position). Mike Ribeiro was on the ice for four goals against.

The silver lining? Steve Oleksy was not on the ice for a single goal against in the elimination game.  And he was the only defenseman to achieve that Monday.  That is the definition of keeper.

Perhaps he should have received more ice time—as it was, he was second-to-last in ice time among defensmen. Compare that to Jack Hillen, who played 44 fewer seconds than Oleksy yet was on the ice for two goals against.

In Washington’s net, meanwhile, Braden Holtby did not look anywhere close to his normal self. He got absolutely no help from his defense. But he also didn’t really help them out much, either, compared to what he’s capable of.  Don’t tell that to the locker room, though. Karl Alzner and Troy Brouwer were having none of it.

“We gave up 2-on-1s, we gave up breakaways, we gave up odd-man rushes. We can’t expect him to save ‘em all,” Brouwer said. “He’s been unbelievable all season long.”

“We had the goaltending to go far,” Alzner said.

That’s so positive, sooo back to the offense.

I know the Capitals’ top players are going to receive a lot of heat for not getting on the scoreboard in Game 7. I get that. At the same time, I’d point out that the Rangers’ biggest offensive stars (Brad Richards, Rick Nash and Derek Stepan) didn’t score goals either Monday, and the team managed to net 5. Nash got an assist on the third goal, and that was it. So there are still ways to win sans top scorer domination, though Nicklas Backstrom called his own [presumably offensive] effort “embarrassing” in the series.

In the end, a lot of things had to go wrong simultaneous for such a drastic dip in performance by the Capitals. And there will be plenty of time to discuss it in the coming days. Right now, if you’re a Capital, it just feels like Cinderella had her glass shoe run over by the pumpkin carriage.

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.

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.

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.

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.