Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Quick Caps-Bolts Game 4 Preview

Green is doubtful, Fehr is probably out, and Boudreau has stated that he does not plan on plan on changing goalies. The Caps are down 3-0 against an indisputably lesser team, and Coach does not want to answer questions about his job. Nothing bodes well. In NHL history, only four teams have come back from a 3-0 deficit to win the series. Last year's Flyers did it against the Bruins, so that possibility may seem plausible... but it is not. The Caps' locker room might as well read "Abandon all hope ye who enter here." We've all been down this road before, some longer than others. Some, like my father, for the past 35 years, since the team's inception.

With the strong possibility of Neuvirth in net and an AHL defenseman replacing one of the league's best, combined with what appears to be near constant ineptitude on the ice and behind the bench, I will not allow myself to dream a little dream and be crushed again. My prediction: Caps lose 3-0, Laich gets injured, Semin doesn't play the third period, and the team doesn't reach 25 shots on net. Your three stars: (3) Roloson (2) Stamkos (1) St. Louis.

After tonight, Bruce Boudreau will likely join about a tenth of the country in being unemployed. Fans will feel pain. Some for a while, some for a day or two. NBC execs will smash computers and scream "Never tell me the odds" while some pencil pusher continues to rattle off the odds that any money will be made on either the conference or Stanley Cup finals (May the Fourth be With You). And we will look to next year. Again.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Caps-Bolts Game 3/Goal 4 Recap

The Caps managed to pull defeat from the jaws of victory yet again, this time in Tampa. They scored the first goal, except that Semin was an eager beaver and the team was called for too many men on the ice, nullifying the goal. Then Tampa turned around to score the first real goal and took the lead into the second period despite being badly outshot, again. Someone lit a fire in the locker room, because Washington stormed out and tied the game early in the second, and then someone put the fire out as the quickly allowed the tying goal. With a fortuitous 5-on-3, the good guys finally capitalized on the power play, with who else but Ovechkin knotting the go-ahead goal late in the third, and the team was able to take their own lead into the third period. A little more than five minutes in, Stamkos put in another tying goal. Then, only 24 seconds later, Ryan Malone "scored" what would be the game-winner. Here is what it looked like:

The goal was under review to determine if there was a distinct kicking motion. I am of the mind that it never should have gotten that far, because of NHL Rule 69: Interference of the Goalkeeper. This is a rule that has to be blown on the play, and is not reviewable. Once the goal was called, the point became moot. Rule 69 states that an attacking player who initiates contact from outside the crease has to make a reasonable effort to avoid such contact. Malone skated straight into the net. "For purposes of this rule, “contact,” whether incidental or otherwise, shall mean any contact that is made between or among a goalkeeper and attacking player(s), whether by means of a stick or any part of the body." Malone has his skate on Neuvirth's leg, as you can see above. "If a defending player has been pushed, shoved, or fouled by an attacking player so as to cause the defending player to come into contact with his own goalkeeper, such contact shall be deemed contact initiated by the attacking player for purposes of this rule, and if necessary a penalty assessed to the attacking player and if a goal is scored it would be disallowed." You can see Malone's shoulder and arm are firmly planted in Carlson's side. Carlson, a victim of the laws of physics, would continue on into Neuvirth, knocking him away from the puck as it slid past his leg and into the net. Malone made no attempt to avoid Neuvirth, came into contact with him, and caused Carlson to collide with his goalie, and it all resulted in a goal. Under the language of Rule 69, it should have been blown dead on the ice.

The Caps screwed themselves with the first goal of the game, but got bent over on this one. This should have been a win for Washington, but between team and coaching idiocy (Keith Jones of Versus said after the first period that Boudreau had a brain cramp when he decided to sit Ovechkin for a 4-on-4, despite Ovi leading the league in 4-on-4 goals) and the pivotal no-call in the third, the Lightning got the win. They deserve it for doing things right and their play certainly earned the win, but that doesn't mean that the Capitals should have lost, either. To make matters worse, both Mike Green and Eric Fehr were injured in the game, and it would be a surprise to see either of them in the game tomorrow night. Five thoughts:
  1. Leading into this game, so many analysts were saying Ovechkin needed to do more aside from leading the team in points. How does scoring a go-ahead goal, adding an assist, and dishing out four hits to accompany his five shots sound?
  2. Piggybacking on that, the rest of the team needs to get their S together. Eleven separate players on Tampa had one point each, and only two were -1 players. The Caps had seven players with a point, including both of Ovi's, and only two were +1 players. This tells us that the whole team on Tampa is chipping in offensively and doing their parts on defense, while only about a third of the Caps are doing their part at either end of the ice.

  3. Say what you will, but when a goalie allows three or more goals in three straight playoff games, a lot of it is on him. This is a team sport, and team play does dictate a lot of what does and does not go into the net. But forgive me for looking to the goalie after three straight games with less than a .900 sv% and more 3+ goals each time. I have made my allegiance no secret, and I went into this in detail early on... so I will say I told you so: Neuvirth is a marginally better version of Theodore, and Varlamov should have been in net this whole time. This is precisely the play I predicted. He played very well against the Rangers, but that was him playing above his ability.

  4. Johansson started on the second line tonight, and as we saw all throughout the regular season, the Laich-MJ90-Semin line does not click: they all ended -2 and combined for two assists: Semin got the primary assist on Ovi's goal and Johansson got a secondary helper on Carlson's. Johansson ended the night on the Luis Mendoza line with Chimera and Sturm, which is where he belongs and has seen the most success. I don't think we will have to wonder what is going through Boudreau's mind when he makes these lines much longer, though.

  5. The Lightning are a team that, traditionally, the Capitals have had no problem dispatching, especially under Boudreau. They are missing one of their top offensive players and one of their top defensemen. Yet they are up 3-0 against the top seed in the conference and the winner of their division. My final thought for the game? Kudos to Guy Boucher for doing a hell of a job coaching these guys, and to their players for playing the Caps' weaknesses and strengths like a familiar song. Even though Washington should win the series based on skill and depth, it's the intelligence of the coaching staff and strong play of the Bolts that got them here, and they deserve the credit.
Of course, we're all starting to get used to these kinds of calls and almost expect them at crucial moments. I'm sure many Caps fans remember this from last year's playoffs, a pivotal no-goal in Game 7:

And We're Back: Tampa Series Preview/Recap

So I've learned that you have to stay motivated to write on these here blogospheres. It was no problem when I was mad, when I had something to rail against and about, but once the boys in red started winning and put away their season's most troublesome opponent in five games, I found it hard to write anything that I felt wasn't being written by every other professional and non-professional hockey writer in the country. So I opted not to. But now the Caps are down 2-0, and I am pissed. Annnnnnnnnd we're back:

The Capitals got things done in the Rangers series. They converted on the powerplay, got offensive support from their third liners, superb penalty killing team-wide, and great goaltending from Neuvirth. Perhaps most importantly, but least publicized, the lines stayed almost constant throughout the series, at least until Knuble was injured.
Oh hai there, puck. Sorry, I can't let you in tonight.
Then Tampa Bay came to town and Boudreau panicked. The lines were a-jumble. Eric Fehr scored a goal in his second game, and was kept on the third line. The top line has only kept Ovechkin as a constant, with Chimera and Laich filling in for Knuble at times, and Johnasson filling in for Backstrom last game. Marco Sturm played on the second line for six straight games before being demoted to the fourth line in Round 2 Game 2, despite having only two assists through those six games. That may not sound too bad because they were tight series, but each of his standard linemates, Arnott and Semin, had several more points and were involved in some of the most pivotal plays of the first series.

Johansson by far benefited the most from Boudreau's panic and odd ideas on which players should get his praise and which get to kiss his fat ice cream filled behind. Normally playing center on the third line, he has seen some of the top minutes on the team. In addition to his even strength duties, MoJo gets top minutes on both the powerplay and the penalty kill. In fact, in the first game against the Lightning, the only player to get more shorthanded time than Johansson was Scott Hannan. Here's the thing: Johansson is a rookie. Not even a top-tier rookie. He was at no point during the season anywhere near Calder Cup conversations, did not show up on the scoresheet with astounding frequency, and did not have ANY experience playing North American style hockey prior to his NHL career. While he has shown up in clutch moments over the past two months, is this really the player the team needs to throw so much of their burden upon? Is he really a clutch, go-to player, or is that just the result of the minutes in which Boudreau is playing him? What is this world where this rookie is getting more crucial minutes than Nicklas Backstrom, Jason Arnott, Eric Fehr, and Mike Knuble?

Of course these losses cannot be blamed on Johansson, and I do not mean to insinuate as such. I bring him up as an example of Boudreau's miscues. Here is a coach with some of the top players in the league on both offense and defense, an oh-so-very deep depth chart, and a well of great Hershey Bears players to call upon in an emergency. Yet instead of keeping lines that are tried and true and tend to show up in successful games, and relying on his veteran players, Boudreau goes for the unconventional in hopes of finding some magical combination that will score 100 goals and allow none. (See my first post of April and this similar article from a more respected Caps blogger)

Tonight, it seems he is sticking with Neuvirth in net, a decision I do not completely agree with but really cannot fault, either. Of further note is that Johansson is playing second line center (a position at which he was a near-failure for the majority of the season) with Arnott getting demoted to the third line. This is the kind of crap that gets a team to lose. We saw it against Montreal last year at the end of the series; players getting mixed up on assignments and looking lost and uncomfortable with the constantly shifting duties and linemates. Arnott has been an absolute stud on the second line with Semin and Laich. It is an insult to lessen his duties in the playoffs. Arnott was brought in for three reasons: to fill in the 2C void, to provide leadership, and for his vast playoff experience. Granted, these lines and more will change during the course of the game, but it is all in vain. Those who follow the team know which lines work, which players work, and are all baffled by what we
Well at least he sees the puck
see on the ice. Sturm is still in the lineup, but playing a role he is not suited for. If he is not going to see time on the second or third lines because of his play, then he should sit. Just because Hendricks makes less money does not mean he deserves a spot in the press box. Boudreau is showing why he is losing the respect of fans across the country and the trust and support of Washington's faithful, and if (when?) the Caps lose this series, not many tears will be shed when (if?) he loses his job.

After all that, here is my preview for tonight: Caps lose, 5-2. Roloson is hot, and Neuvirth is reverting to the style of play that made me wish he was trade bait, with every shot not deflected in by a teammate seemingly going in over his left shoulder. Neuvirth still continues with his failure to close off the post, especially the top corners of the net, as a result of his low stance. The Lightning seem to have caught on to this, and have capitalized on the opening. One need only look at Game 2 to see the fruits of this knowledge, with both the powerplay goal and the OT game-winner ending in the same spot of the net, but from two completely different spots of the ice. The other goal, of course, came off a bad bounce off Mike Green's skate, but even that was the result of the Bolts getting pucks to the front of the net and aiming for that top right shelf - the pass in front of the net was meant to end with a shot on that right side of the net.

The Caps' powerplay has become inept once again, going 0-11 in the first two games despite (surprise!) countless different line combos. The lines are constantly changing, but luckily the team has gone to lines we've seen December. The Bolts are at home, and even though they are again missing Gagne and Kubina, that didn't stop them from making the Capitals look almost second-rate at the phone booth. Your three stars for the night: (3) Hedman (2) Lecavalier (1) Stamkos

Does Bruce Boudreau have to smack a bitch?