Caps In Familiar SpotPosted on April 29, 2012
For the first time in his 45-game Stanley Cup playoff career, Caps captain Alex Ovechkin is without a point in consecutive contests. Ovechkin’s name was not on the scoresheet when the Capitals eked out a 2-1 overtime win on Game 7 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against Boston on Thursday, nor was it on the sheet when the Caps dropped the opener of their second-round series to the New York Rangers by a 3-1 score on Saturday. That’s only three goals we’re talking about, but that’s part of the issue, too. Real estate is hard to come by in the playoffs, and goals are, too. The Caps have now dropped six straight second-round Stanley Cup games, scoring two or fewer goals in four of those losses. They’ve got to find a way to solve some of the game’s more elite goaltenders to get over the hump and get to the back nine (read: third round) of the Stanley Cup playoffs. “It’s a new series now,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble. “The pace and the stakes go up again. We’ve got to make sure that we’re working that much harder to get shots to the net. “You get used to a seven-game series, working at that certain pace and a certain way of doing things to generate shots. Well, it’s going to be a little bit different now with a different set of defensemen. This defense takes a ton of pride in blocking shots and they know they’ve got a world-class goalie behind them. We’re going to have to upgrade our offensive work ethic and work that much harder to score goals. Hopefully, we can get them by him.” The Caps’ opponent in this round is every bit as hungry as they are to get to that elusive third-round plateau: the Rangers haven’t advanced that far since 1997, one year longer than the Caps’ own drought, which dates back to 1998. One of these teams ends their drought this spring. Two springs ago, the 121-point, Presidents’ Trophy-winning Caps got a five-goal, 10-point performance from Ovechkin in the first round of the playoffs against a team – the Montreal Canadiens – that had a serious proclivity for blocking shots. Washington scored 22 goals (from 10 different players) in that series, Ovechkin was involved in nearly half of those goals, and yet the Caps were finished for the year before May 1. This time around, they got two goals and five points from Ovechkin in the first round. That was good for tops on the team in scoring, but the difference was the rest of the Caps chimed in. Washington scored only 16 first-round goals against the Bruins this spring, but they came from a dozen different players. In short, while Ovechkin was being largely bottled up by the likes of behemoth Bruins blueliners Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, the rest of the Caps were chipping in with contributions against the lesser lights of the Boston rearguard brigade. We’re one game into the second round now, and we’re hearing about how Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Bcakstrom have to be better against the Rangers. That’s true, but mainly because those three Capitals populate two different lines rather than one. Ovechkin and his linemates – Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera for most of Game 1, Laich and Troy Brouwer at other times – are often on the ice against New York’s top blueliners, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. While that tandem isn’t as physically daunting as that of Chara and Seidenberg, it’s a very formidable one in its own right. “They’re confident [defensemen],” says Brouwer. “They step up, they hold the line very well and they have a lot of good back-pressure from their forwards. “We’ve got to get pucks in deep, we’ve got to make those guys work. Both of those two were up there in the top of the league for ice time in the regular season and I would assume it’s the same for the playoffs. Those guys log a lot of minutes and you’ve got to make them work. And you’ve got to try to wear them down. They were in a tough seven-game series in the first round, and we’ve got to continue to get pucks in and finish our checks on them.” Brouwer is right. Girardi was fourth and McDonagh 15th in average ice time per game during the regular season. They’re both workhorses, and Ovechkin and company can expect to see a lot of them. “It’s a match-up,” says Ovechkin. “I just have to find a way first of all to have the puck, and to find a lane to shoot it.” Ovechkin believes that he needs to get the puck with speed before he gets to the blueline in order to get the chances he needs to score. The Caps captain had a couple of those high-grade chances in Game 1, but he was unable to convert. “I have to have more patience in the neutral zone,” says Ovechkin. “Don’t come closer to the blueline, because if I’m going to have the puck on the blueline and I don’t have the speed, I’m not that [dangerous] guy. I just have to wait a little bit. If Brooksie or Brouwer or somebody else is going to have the puck, maybe don’t [go] full speed right away. Take a little bit of time for me and after that I can skate.” Sometimes when Ovechkin is slumping, he seems to snap out of it when someone else carries the puck into the zone. Ovechkin can then draw the defenders to him, creating more room for others. Against the Rangers, there’s not much room for No. 8 to operate once he is in the zone. “If I want to make an opportunity for me,” says Ovechkin, “find a spot and find a way, they have to give me the puck at full speed in the neutral zone. Because in the [offensive] zone, it’s pretty hard to find me because I have Girardi on me and another guy on me.” Even with Chara and Seidenberg on him like a cheap suit in round one, Ovechkin was able to contribute and lead his team in scoring. This time, he’s going to need more help from Backstrom and Semin. Both Backstrom and Semin hit iron on prime chances in Game 1. Semin led the Caps with three goals against Boston, and Backstrom supplied the double-overtime game-winner in a crucial Game 2 win against the Bruins. “To do well in the playoffs, it takes everybody,” says Knuble. “All the guys to chip in at times. The stars are the stars; they’re going to hopefully do what they do. And then you hope you get the secondary scoring. That’s the key to getting through.” The main problem in Game 1 was that the Caps had just 18 shots on Lundqvist. They had just 17 on Boston’s Tim Thomas in Game 1 of that series, and lost that opener as well. Winning Game 2 – regardless of who supplies the offense – will go a long way. The Caps would wrest home ice advantage from the Rangers, and have a chance to take control of the set when the scene shifts to the District for Game 3 on Wednesday. If Ovechkin scores, great. If he and his linemates create chances and wear down Girardi and McDonagh, that’s good, too. Not only will they need some offense, some pressure and some pucks to the net from multiple players, they’ll need a better night in net from rookie Braden Holtby. Holtby gave up three goals on just 14 shots in the opener. Despite his first sub-ordinary performance of the playoffs, the Caps aren’t worried about Holtby. He hasn’t lost back-to-back starts in his last 24 NHL appearances, including the playoffs. “I just think with his maturity level, I don’t think it rattles him that much,” says Knuble of Holtby. “Once the game ends, he’s pretty good at analyzing himself and pretty realistic in his analysis. From his comments to the media, he knows he can do better. We appreciate that. We know he’ll bounce back the next game. I don’t think there is a guy worried about that at all.” If the Caps win Game 2 – regardless of how they do it – they won’t be worried about anyone except the Rangers.