The Defense Can Never Rest
By Scott Lowe
The Washington Capitals are a team that in the past has not handled playoff prosperity well.
That’s why it was so refreshing to hear after Game 1 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers that they were not happy with their offensive showing in a hard-fought 2-1 overtime victory in which they toiled for about 54 minutes before potting a goal.
And that’s why it was even more encouraging to hear that they weren’t happy with their third-period effort following a 2-0 win in Game 2.
“We played a pretty solid middle period,” said center Jason Arnott, who netted the Caps’ first power-play goal in what turned out to be a decisive e two-goal second stanza. “It’s the third period we’ve got to clean up now, playing with that lead and knowing that we’ve got to keep pushing forward, keep shooting pucks and trying not to get on our heels too much.”
Was it really that bad? Certainly not if taken at face value. Washington held the Rangers to just nine shots over the game’s final 40 minutes (six in the third period) as rookie netminder Michal Neuvirth recorded his first career postseason shutout. But in accomplishing that, the Caps decided to play quite a bit of whack-a-puck, chipping the biscuit out of the zone and allowing New York to regroup and dump the puck right back in. The pressure built throughout the period as the Rangers held a considerable territorial advantage, and they did manage to create a few quality scoring opportunities.
“They were really coming on,” Washington head coach Bruce Boudreau said. “We were hanging on. I thought the first 10 minutes we hung on and the whole third period was played in our zone. I don’t think that if we want to be successful in the end that can continue to be done.”
And the internal critique continued. Said Jason Chimera, the other goal-scorer: “I think we got a little comfortable there with a two-nothing lead. Sometimes you play a little better with a one-nothing lead, but to have the two-goal lead was nice. Neuvy stood tall in the third period. We didn’t give them too many quality chances, but they spent too much time in our end.”
Added Brooks Laich, who has been a faceoff magician thus far in the series (72 percent wins in game one) and whose hard worked set up Chimera’s pretty one-timer: “Nothing is anywhere near over. We like the position we are in, but there still is room for improvement.”
These comments are music to the ears of Caps’ fans, who have watched their teams blow 2-0 and 3-1 series leads with seeming regularity throughout their checkered playoff history. NHL annals indicate that a 2-0 lead is nearly insurmountable. Out of 307 series that have seen a team win the first two contests, only 41 teams or 13.4 percent, have rallied from that deficit. Of course, Washington is the anomaly, having jumped to five 2-0 leads but winning only one of those series. The Caps historically have laid an egg in such situations, NEVER winning a Game 3 when holding a two-game advantage. On the bright side, the one series they did lead 2-0 and manage to win was a five-game victory against Ottawa in 1998, the only year in which they advanced to the Stanley Cup Finals.
In recent years Washington has dropped series to Pittsburgh (2009) after leading 2-0 and Montreal (2010) after holding a 3-1 advantage. Just as they seem to have learned the value of buying into a more defensive style of play, however, the more mature Caps appear to be ready for whatever the Rangers will throw at them Sunday.
“Every game is a new game, and we know they’re going to come out hard, so we’ve got to be ready,” defenseman John Erskine said. “We got our two wins at home and are looking to go in there and steal a couple games. We remember when we played at Pittsburgh and had a 2-0 lead and blew that. We know that Sunday we have to come out hard and be ready for them.”
Added Boyd Gordon: “I think we’ve been in every type of situation – coming from behind and having the lead. We are not taking anything for granted. We know that we are going into a tough building to play in and that the momentum can shift pretty quickly, so (Sunday) is a pretty big game. We are going to have to come out and do exactly the same thing that we have been doing to get the same result.”
And, from Nicklas Backstrom: “We have to be ready to play right away. We are going to have to come out hard and keep doing all those things we’ve talked about. We have to play the same way that we did at home. We can’t stop playing right now. We have to have the same work ethic that.”
Taking a deeper look into the series shows that there are several encouraging signs favoring Washington. Although the Caps have scored four total goals, they have gotten one goal from each of their top three lines, with the fourth coming on the power play. Arnott’s power-play tally in Game 2 was a huge goal for a team that made a habit of closing out one-goal leads down the stretch and began to erase the memory of last year’s 1-for-33 extra-man showing against Montreal. Washington is 1-for-5 on the power play and has killed all four of the Rangers’ extra-man advantages. “Special teams are going to win you games,” Boudreau said.
The Caps are now 18-3-1 in their last 22 games, including the regular season, with 12 of those victories of the one-goal variety (five in OT and three in shootouts). In addition, Washington was a team that in past years has struggled against clubs that like to sag and block shots, but this year the Caps have more blocks than New York, having turned aside 53 shots compared to the Rangers’ 47 shots on goal. Fourteen of Washington’s 18 skaters have rejected a New York offering. While the transformation from offensive juggernaut to defensive stalwart may not complete, clearly the Caps have discovered the formula for postseason success.
“We are playing playoff hockey,” Erskine said. “Everyone is buying into what our plan is and guys are sacrificing their bodies to block shots. Guys are all coming back to the front of the net and blocking out.”
Added Boudreau: “They’ve been buying in since December. I’ve said it many times. They just want to win. They’ve all said it to a man. The important thing is that they get to experience success. We’ve got a lot of guys who have won a lot of awards, and that doesn’t mean anything to them now. The success and what could happen is what they want, so when we started changing this a little bit, they said that if it’s going to work we’re going to do it.”
So far, so good. Sunday afternoon we’ll find out if the Caps have really taken the next step toward becoming a Stanley Cup favorite.