Capitals are on the Brink…..
Tonight the Capitals are once again heading to Pittsburgh to resume the Conference Semi-Finals. But there is a big difference between this trip and the one taken just last week. In fact, it is a 3 game difference.
Last Wednesday when the Capitals took on the Penguins in game three they held the cards. By winning that game they would have gone up 3 games to none and only two teams have ever survived that type of deficit, the Islanders in 1975 and the Maple Leafs in 1942. The game got off to a great start as everyone in Pittsburgh was stunned as the puck ricocheted of the wall and away from Fleury then right onto the stick of Ovechkin who put it away in the vacated net. The Capitals were up 1-0 and for most of the first period the Penguins appeared to be reeling from this terrible luck that started game three. The Penguins looked deflated and stunned and if it was not for Fleury’s incredible play in the opening period, the Penguins would never have stood a chance.
The Capitals came out on fire after that opening break and had several chances to add to the lead. It could have easily been a three or four goal lead. Since then it has been all down hill- or down an icy slope. The Penguins woke up towards the end of the period and spent the rest that game, and the next one, dominating the Capitals in every aspect of the game. They beat them to every puck, seemed to always be the ones to land the first hit (while the Capitals were being penalized for retaliating), and were consistently pressuring the front of the net. The Capitals went from full control in the opening period of game three to life support by the time the first period of game six begins tonight.
The Capitals’ problems have been across the board. Very few guys are spared. Even the mighty Varlamov has looked a little more human-even though his defensemen have done nothing to help alleviate the pressure on him. The Capitals have put up goals in the last three games but they are still having problems maintaining an offensive attack thus giving Varlamov a break. The Caps were out shot 112-76 in last 3 games. They are settling for outside shots and are not getting any puck movement–which would create open shot shots close to the net–as well as not getting bodies in front of Fleury around his crease. If you are going to be an outside shooting team you need to have physical bodies muscling up in front of the net, making it difficult for Fleury to find the puck, and then capitalizing on rebounds that may come loose. Right now the team is content on shooting from the outside hoping that enough shots get past Fleury for the Capitals to win the series. That has not worked. The offense will need to be more aggressive tonight and will need to create easy scoring opportunities as a result of puck movement and physical play in front of Fleury’s crease.
While the offense has had its problems they have been able to average 3 goals a game. The defense has relatively nothing to hang their hat on. They have been bad throughout the series. Even when the Capitals were up 2 games to none, the defense was having issues. In games 1 and 2 the Penguins were able to get many odd man rushes as well as opportunities in front of the goal. The difference between the first two games and the last two is that the Penguins’ passing has been better. They have been taking advantage of odd man rushes to put the puck in shooting position within 10 feet of the net. They have been allowing the passes to beat Varlamov rather then trying to force the shots to beat him. Early in the series, the Penguins were not connecting on those types of passes which resulted in missed opportunities at quick shots on the net, allowing Varlamov to re-establish position and make the save.
If the Capitals have any hopes of getting back into this series they need to improve on the defensive side of the ice, as well up the ante on the physical dynamic of the team. They need to be the attacking team and the retaliatory team. They need to generate offense from their defense and then keep possession of the puck to allow Varlamov time to catch his breath. Pittsburgh has spent so much time in the offensive zone or on the attack, that Varlamov has been forced to hold his position much longer then Fleury. Even if you take out the effects that all the shots have had on him, the mere fact that he has been forced to stand guard so long will affect his ability to mind the net. The pads and gloves he wears have a lot of weight to them; they can really wear a goalie down when he is constantly in a defensive position.
The Capitals will get some help tonight if Brashear is back in the line-up. He would be able to add some much needed physicality to this Capitals team. Even if he only sees a couple of shifts, this could help the Capitals change the tone of this series.
One thing is for sure, if the Capitals do not figure out how to defend there zone, keep the middle clear for Varlamov, play a more physical game, and maintain some offensive control of the puck, this series will be ending one game too soon-and not in the favor of those out Rocking the Red.