Last Wednesday, in a thrilling and razor close series, the Caps found a way to end their season in heartbreaking fashion once again. They blew a 3-1 series lead in the second round for the first time in team history, including two games at Madison Square Garden in overtime. They were a 101 seconds from the Eastern Conference Finals in game five and fell short.
There have been 40 years of Washington Capitals hockey and 0 Stanley Cups.
As they say, it is what it is.
You can call the series loss whatever you want, a choke, a collapse, a lack of clutch play, or an absence of a killer instinct, it doesn’t matter, at this point. The bottom line is the Capitals lost while the Rangers, who I’ve been asserting since January are the best team in hockey, move on to take on Tampa and likely the Western Conference champion following that.
Make no mistake about it, the Rangers were the best team in the NHL in the regular season, and they are working on proving it in the post season. They were resilient and stuck to their process, for the most part, and that allowed them to move on. I expect them to win the Stanley Cup in June.
The Caps were oh so close, though. How tight was this series? Here are some numbers to back that up:
13-12, Rangers, in goals (all games decided by a single goal).
236-223, Rangers, in shots on goal (1.86 per game).
458-438, Rangers, in shots attempted (2.86 per game).
232-220, Capitals, in hits (1.71 per game).
One stat that wasn’t close was face-offs, the Caps dominated those, 250-199 (55.7%), thanks primarily to Nicklas Backstrom and Jay Beagle. Ironically, though, it was some key draws that ultimately did Washington in. Most notably the series winning sequence where Eric Fehr was beaten badly by Derek Stepan, which caused both Fehr and Andre Burakovsky to become confused defensively, allowing Stepan to sneak to the far post for a wide open rebound goal. Another key draw that the Capitals lost was the one with 3.6 seconds left in the opening frame in game six. Chris Kreider scored on a rebound with 0.3 seconds remaining to give New York a 2-0 lead that the Capitals ultimately could not overcome despite a furious and dominating rally.
Simply put, the Rangers, who had a major focus lapse at the end of game one, didn’t have as many “lack of focus” sequences as the Capitals did in the series, and that’s ultimately why they won. Washington struggled out of the gate in many first periods as well as in the third period in game six. Also, after a dominating first period in game seven, their best opening frame by a mile in the series, they took some terrible penalties to lose all of the momentum they had built up. Mike Green’s cross checking penalty on Dan Girardi was a classic lack of focus moment. It was a terrible decision at the wrong time, especially after two straight Capitals penalty kills, and it was a big factor in Washington not winning game seven.
Adding to the lack of focus issue was a putrid Washington power play. For the series the Caps were 1 for 15, while New York went 3 for 18. That’s a big factor in a super tight series. The Caps, who had the best power play in the NHL in the regular season, struggled with zone entries and when they were able to get set up, were far too predictable in their attempts to force Alexander Ovechkin the puck. The playoffs are all about adjustments. The Washington coaching staff did a nice job of making adjustments in the series at even strength, but they failed to change course on the power play. That was a mistake. They have used a set up where they put two guys in front of the opposing goalie and fire away from the point, but they failed to employ that strategy in the Rangers series.
In the opening round series win over the Islanders, the Capitals had success at getting pucks deep and hitting the New York defense with a relentless fore-check. Washington had a much harder time of that with the Rangers. The New York forwards are lightning fast, but their defense was an area that the Caps needed to exploit better with pressure and physicality. In game three, particularly in period two, the Rangers defensemen were petrified of Tom Wilson. “Willy” had his best game of the series and had the Rangers defense backing up from him. I’m surprised that the Capitals coaches didn’t try to use that tactic and advantage more often in the series. In addition, when New York did get the puck, the Capitals first forward too often flushed or chased the Rangers D-man behind the net causing an easy exit for New York on too many occasions. I didn’t think that was a wise strategy and I’m not sure if it was the coaches instructing the players to do that or the players choosing to do it on their own? Either way, it is best, especially with no red line, to shade the defensemen one way or the other and try to trap him before he exits the defensive zone. Washington did that well in their 5-2 regular season beat down of New York at Madison Square Garden, but they couldn’t repeat that fore-checking success in the playoffs against the Blueshirts.
Overall, the better team won the series. But in sports the better team doesn’t always win and the Capitals let an opportunity to close out the series and possibly win the Stanley Cup slip by.
It was a bitter defeat and it was as close as Washington has come to making the conference finals since 1998. Make no mistake about it, it stinks to lose, but the Capitals are once again a Stanley Cup contender after not being one since prior to the Montreal loss in 2010 (and you could argue that team had too many holes as well, especially at second line center and on defense).
So going forward there should be lots of optimism, but a busy summer of business and roster tweaking looms ahead for General Manager Brian MacLellan and Head Coach Barry Trotz. The Capitals were a big and physical team, but they struggled against teams with speed. Adding team speed will need to be addressed with the off season moves.
Trotz and MacLellan have done a magnificent job of changing the culture to be much more team focused and the personnel moves to upgrade the blueline, something I called for along with a “team first” concept last May before either was hired, were spot on. Last summer’s decisions were validated with the strong regular season and playoff performance.
With John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen under contract this team has the foundation for a strong blueline for next season and beyond. Orpik had a fantastic season and brought a physical presence to the back end this club has not had since Brendan Witt left. #44 will be 35 years old in September, but the way he conditions and maintains himself, he’s a very young 35 and should be fine next year. Alzner, under the tutelage of Todd Reirden in Trotz’ system, had his best season as a pro.
In net, Braden Holtby stepped up and was dominant, again, as predicted here. Holtby is a restricted free agent and will be a priority to sign to a long term deal. He played 73 games, including 72 starts, winning 41 of them with nine shutouts. Ideally you’d prefer Holtby to play between 60 and 65 games, so Washington needs to figure out its’ backup goaltender situation in the offseason. Justin Peters is signed for another campaign, but he struggled in his nine starts and 12 appearances going 3-6-1 with just a .888 save percentage. Basically, he played like an AHLer. The other option would be to bring up Philipp Grubauer, who started game two against the Islanders and won, although he wasn’t real sharp in that tilt. Better play from the backup, who will likely see the cage on the latter half of back to back game situations, is necessary in order to not give away valuable standings points during the regular season.
The main priority, other than signing Holtby, for MacLellan and Trotz is to find a top line right wing. That position is the team’s biggest hole and a big factor in why the team isn’t moving on. There is no player on the current roster that can fill that gap, so that has to be the outside focus this summer via free agency or trade.
Second line center, well we won’t be talking about that issue any more. Evgeny Kuznetsov showed in the playoffs that he has that spot covered. What a super finish to his first full NHL season for the young 22 year old Russian! He is so good and strong with the puck and he has the ability to take over games as he did in game five against the Islanders and game six against the Rangers.
With Ovechkin, Backstrom, Kuznetsov, and now the emergence of Burakovsky, the Capitals have four legitimate top six forwards. Ovechkin had a monster season with 53 goals and 81 points. He swung his plus/minus from -35 to +10. A much improved blue line, a structured system, and hard work by the Gr8 led to a sensational turnaround. Big credit should be given to the Capitals coaching staff for properly developing young offensive minded forwards Kuznetsov and Burakovsky. Without their astute handling this team doesn’t get as far as it did. Trotz clearly knew what he was doing in bringing along these two kids in the manner in which it unfolded. Both are strong on the puck and improved immensely in their own zone from where they were in the season opener back in October. Right wing is the big issue now, as mentioned above.
As for Wilson, well the Capitals have to better utilize his talents. His hands and puck skills, as well as his skating, must improve. He has the potential to be at least a third line force or possibly a second liner, at some point. Opposing defensemen fear a guy like him and he can open up lots of space for his line mates. The coaches have to find a way to make him a bigger factor in 2015-16.
Making things tough on MacLellan this offseason will be the salary cap and the contracts he likely won’t be able to move in Troy Brouwer (0 playoff goals) and Brooks Laich (1 playoff goal). That is $8.1M tied up in two players who are bottom six forwards. Joel Ward, at $3M, had far better production than those two in the post season, but the 34 year old is headed to unrestricted free agency and will likely end up elsewhere for more money.
As for Marcus Johansson, he’s a restricted free agent who had a strong regular season, but disappeared too much in the Rangers series. Marcus is bumped off of the puck too easily in the playoffs and is not a threat to throttle opposing defensemen. I’m not sure where he fits in the team’s plans, but if the Caps keep him they can’t overpay him for his regular season statistics when he’s not producing in the playoffs.
When it comes to Jason Chimera, Coach Trotz stated in his final presser that he and #25 butted heads, at times, during the regular season. Chimera had a poor regular season, but in the playoffs he was a different guy. He gave the Rangers fits with his speed and tenacity. He’s under contract next year for $1.9M so he’ll likely be around. It would be nice if “Chimmer” brought the way he played in the post season on a consistent basis to next year’s regular season.
Beagle, Fehr, and Curtis Glencross are all unrestricted free agents so they’ll only return if the price and fit is right. Beagle is great on draws and on the penalty kill so he has a greater chance of being back. Fehr scored 19 goals and goes to the net well. His injury history will likely keep his price down and increase his chances of a return to Washington. He’s definitely a well liked player in the locker room. Glencross added speed, but he had the propensity to make the big mistake. His giveaway in overtime of game five was totally the wrong play. He needed to stride to the red line and dump the puck. If Laich had the advantage he thought he had, then gaining the red line and rimming it would have worked too, instead he opted for the high risk pass and Laich mistakenly changed when he should have headed back on defense. It was a costly lack of focus by both players there.
Speaking of next year’s regular season, making the playoffs is not going to be any easier. It wasn’t until the last week of the regular season that the Capitals clinched a spot in the dance since it took until game 80 to do that. You have to think the Blue Jackets, Flyers, Hurricanes, and Devils will find ways to be better next year, so Washington will have to work hard just to qualify for the Stanley Cup Playoffs in 2015-16.
The Caps were relatively healthy in 2014-15. You can attribute a part of that to luck, but the way the roster was handled and the ice time spread out properly, especially on the blue line, allowed the players to be fresher and not more susceptible to injuries. The coaching staff along with the training staff, led by Greg “Smitty” Smith, did an outstanding job of knowing when to push and back off of this team in terms of practice time, as well.
In terms of the regular season and qualifying for the playoffs in 2014-15, Green played a huge factor in the Caps just getting there. His ability to rush the puck and drive offensive pressure is something this team needed from the back end due to the lack of up front scoring. Unfortunately, #52 was not that same player in the Rangers series. In 14 post season tilts he had two assists and no goals. Against the Blueshirts he struggled to gets shots on goal and his two penalties in game seven were terrible. Green improved a ton defensively this season under Trotz, but under pressure in the biggest game of the season, he failed in key situations. I’ve always been a Green supporter, however, he’s an unrestricted free agent and I can’t see the Capitals spending big money on him when they have other more pressing needs in the top six at right wing. Someone will offer Green a big contract and he’ll have no choice but to take it. Washington will look to Dmitry Orlov and Nate Schmidt to fill the holes that will likely be vacated by Green and Tim Gleason. However, that is a big risk given Orlov and Schmidt’s injury history, not to mention that both players do not have the offensive talent of #52. MacLellan may need to add a defensemen in the summer, as well.
Overall, the fans have to be positive about the state of affairs despite a tough, stinging, and emotional loss that had many proclaiming “Same Old Caps” when it was said and done.
Hey, I get it. I’ve been watching this team since 1974 and I’ve seen the highs and mostly lows when it comes to the post season.
However, I’m as optimistic as I’ve been in five years. The team finally has a coach and GM duo that understands the importance of a blue line and a structure that leads to proper play. The core players are on board with the team concept and style of play. Backstrom stated that they are playing the right way for only the second time since he’s been with the Caps, with the other being the partial season that Dale Hunter coached the team. The way the Capitals played in 2014-15 during the regular season and the playoffs backs that premise up.
Now they need to take the next steps necessary to be good enough to get to the final and win. That starts with finding a top line right wing. In my book, that player is not in the organization right now, so it’s up to them to find one.
Washington made great strides in 2014-15 and because of the better talent level and improved system, they had the puck more than their opponents once again after a downward trend in that category.
But the future is now; there can be no sitting back and patting each other on the back after a second round exit. There is no pity in sports, especially hockey. Yes, the team had a good season, but there is lots of room for improvement from the game starts to protecting leads to putting clubs away when they’re on the ropes. It’s going to take commitment, effort, and focus from the coaches and the players.
In summary, Washington Capitals hockey is back after what was a train wreck situation just a year ago. Now it’s up to the leadership of the club, on and off the ice, to remain relentless until that donut hole next to Stanley Cup titles is finally gone.