Thursday, April 30, 2009

In the Steel City, Yanni Trumps Sidney

While NHL arenas (particularly those of contending teams) usually are loath to book events during the months of April or May just to avoid conflicts with potential playoff games.

However, that isn't exactly the case in Pittsburgh.

On his blog, Ted Leonsis takes a shot at Mellon Arena's management for putting the master of the pan flute above being able to have a day off in between Games 4 and 5 of the series next Friday and Saturday since Game 6 needs to be on Monday, May 11th since of the concert scheduled on May 12th.

The playoffs are very intense and physical and players need time to recoup. No one is advantaged by playing back to back games so no one can complain but it is unfortunate that the Yanni concert takes precedence over high quality NHL playoff hockey.

Of course, it's understandable spring events at Mellon Arena are a source of a sore spot for Leonsis and the Caps, who agreed in 2001 to the unusual step of playing Games 2 and 3 on the road after a dance competition was scheduled for the aging venue. Of course, the competition was eventually cancelled, but the Pens stole Game 1 in Washington, swept the two games at home and eventually took the series in five games.

But that's not the only exciting event that is filling the schedule as it is up in Western Pennsylvania, as a WWE Smackdown is slated for Sunday and Dane Cook for Tuesday, meaning the ice probably won't be in very good condition for either games in Pittsburgh.

As for the Verizon Center, the next non-hockey event doesn't take place on May 18th for a Bruce Springsteen concert, which could impact the Eastern Conference finals if the Capitals and Hurricanes advance to battle for the Wales Trophy. But the building has been hockey-only since the playoffs started, while Mellon Arena certainly has filled the calendar, mostly thanks to the building's managment as SMG looking to fill dates.

It also creates an interesting dynamic for a big shift in momentum late next week, as the team that wins Game 4 has a huge momentum advantage heading into the next night in Washington.

Questions Surround Ovechkin's Health

With all the attention turned on the Capitals' star with a matchup with the Penguins looming, one notable Cap missed practice Thursday, as Alex Ovechkin wasn't out there.

Of course, that started off a firestorm at Kettler, with his coach saying he was "just resting" with another tough series ahead. It also had Russian journalist extrordinare Slava Malamud opining that he thought - without having concrete information or an admission from Ovechkin - he thought the star had a "lower-body injury."

Anyone knows that's followed hockey knows that players are playing with severe injuries this time of year, and it takes a lot to knock a player out of a postseason game. In the past, Capitals players have played with broken ribs, torn ligaments and other ailments, and as Washington fans saw this past series, the Rangers' Chris Drury was playing - and hampered - by a broken right hand that he suffered in a game on April 9th.

Ovechkin already stunned the crowd at the press box once this year by missing a game against Toronto in March with an injury, only the second time in his career he's missed time due to being hurt.

As Malamud pointed out, Ovechkin was certainly hurt at the end of last year's playoffs, as he admitted to him that he was taking painkillers for the last month of the season. Not surprising since he plays a very physical style that just wears a player down that after six months of such a style that he'd be battling something as the physical angle of the game ramps up.

Another observer who was watching a Caps practice in the past few weeks pointed out a tendency in Ovechkin's game that certainly indicated that he was favoring something, and it certainly wasn't a mistaken observation. His game, while still one of the best on the ice, isn't quite as dominant right now, not only because of the extra attention he's getting, but also isn't quite the same.

Certainly Ovechkin will be out there unless it's something major for this stage of the playoffs, but it'll be worth watching his game as speculation mounts that he's not 100 percent.

Welcome to the Hype Machine

You wonder if Eric Staal is getting a thank-you note from the NHL after setting up perhaps the most dynamic conference semifinal in league history. After all, while Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux dominated their era on the ice, because "The Great One" played out in the Campbell Conference and "Le Manifique" played in the Wales, the two never met on playoff ice, having to live through comparisons on parallel points and playoff successes.

Now, the NHL finds itself with a public relations gold mine with the two players that most hockey-avoiding outlets can wrap themselves around, a great storyline of two of the game's biggest names going head-to-head in a seven-game set.

Of course, while on the surface the story is the battle of the two superstars, the fact is these are two loaded teams that play a similar style and a pair of teams that can play a very entertaining brand of hockey.

On the Pittsburgh side, while Crosby certainly gets the bulk of the ink for his play, he's paired with a player that earned a Hart Trophy nomination over him, as Evgeni Malkin has really developed into a great player in his own right.

But he's a bit quieter than his Russian counterpart in demeanor, but certainly has surpassed him on the ice. Malkin was the real driving force behind the Pens' playoff push last year until he was hurt in the Eastern finals, and this year had more points than his teammate in both the regular season and the first round of the playoffs.

The Penguins also got a booster shot after a sub-par first half of the season when they acquired Bill Guerin from the Islanders and when Sergei Gonchar returned from an injury, as both those players are right after the two stars in the Pens' first round scoring. While Pittsburgh struggled when they underwent some major losses in the offseason with Ryan Malone and Marian Hossa departing, the acquisition of some good depth meant there was more room for their two top players and they were able to finish with a nice run into the postseason.

On the Washington side, of course, while Ovechkin is the straw that stirs the drink, there is a lot more there that can hurt an opponent. Alexander Semin actually scored more points against the Penguins than his Hart-nominated teammate, and Mike Green had a tremendous campaign as a puck-moving defenseman, not to mention last year's Calder Trophy runner-up, Nicklas Backstrom.

But despite all that, even ESPN, who has treated hockey like the Swine Flu since losing the rights to the league after the lockout, even led yesterday's SportsCenter with hockey - on an off day.

Heck, NBC even offered to one-up its coverage of the Kentucky Derby for one period of playoff overtime should the two need extra time on Saturday, something they didn't extend to the eventual deciding game of the Eastern Conference back in 2007 after Ottawa eliminated Buffalo... with the game having been shifted to Versus.

The league even pushed back the series until Saturday to first drop the puck on national television - which probably isn't a bad thing for the Caps since it allows them to get a couple of days off after a tough Game 7 against the Rangers, while the Pens have been idle since finishing the Flyers last Saturday.

But either way, get ready for over a week of breathless analysis of this series from the media that normally might just overlook the playoffs.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Media Fun for Everyone

A couple of random tidbits about Game 7 of the last round and Game 1 of the next one.

First of all, last night's game pulled a 4.0 rating for Comcast (peaking at a 6.1 around the end of the contest), the highest rating of the year for the regional sports network of the season, which likely will only last until Wednesday when the network picks up coverage of the Capitals-Penguins series at Game 4 (as the first game will be on NBC and the next two will be exclusively on Versus).

That means roughly 94,000 households in the D.C. market watched the game, peaking at 134,000 during the closing moments of the contest.

The other news of note comes in NBC's overtime contingency plan for Game 1 Saturday afternoon. Most fans remember that the peacock cut away from Game 5 of the 2007 Buffalo-Ottawa Eastern Conference Final for Kentucky Derby pre-race activity, leading to a ton of confusion for hockey fans.

This year, the network will televise four periods nationwide (thanks to a 1PM puck drop this time around), and should it go any further, it will cut coverage to Versus outside of the Washington and Pittsburgh markets. Inside those markets, NBC will continue to the conclusion of the contest.

Second-Round Previews

With an exciting first round now in the history books and a pair of division winners hitting the golf course this morning, it's time to check out what just might happen in the second round.

So, after going 7-1 with first round predictions - thanks to Eric Staal and no thanks to the San Jose Sharks - here's what we think might unfold over the next two weeks and earn a berth in the conference finals.

Eastern Conference:

No. 1 Boston Bruins vs. No. 6 Carolina Hurricanes

Perhaps the most stunning news of the first round was the Hurricanes pulling out a Game 7 victory from the jaws of defeat, scoring two goals in the final 80 seconds of regulation to advance to a second-round date with the Boston Bruins.

Carolina had gone back-and-forth with New Jersey for seven games, and after some dramatic games to end the series, they move on to the second round to face the East's top regular-season team (and the top team left in this year's playoffs).

As for Boston, the B's have been idle since dispatching the rival Montreal Canadiens in four straight games. Now, the Bruins face an opponent that they dominated in a four-game regular-season series in which Boston won all four games and outscored Carolina by a lopsided total of 18-6.

But the Hurricanes team the Bruins will face certainly have been better since that last meeting, going 21-8-2 after that final 5-1 loss in February and earning the first series win for the club since the 'Canes hoisted the Stanley Cup back in 2006.

Cam Ward was simply brilliant against the Devils, posting a .938 save percentage and outdueling Martin Brodeur for another great playoff showing from the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy winner.

Trouble for Carolina is that the Bruins are a lot more potent than the Devils team they just dispatched, as Boston had a rare feat of not only leading the league in goals, but also had the stingiest defense.

Tim Thomas, who led the league in GAA and save percentage in the regular season, posted even better numbers in the first round, and now will look to send the Bruins to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1992.

To pull off the upset, Carolina will need to slow down the Bruins enough and pop enough pucks past Thomas, but it's going to be a tall order for the Hurricanes to move on any further in this year's playoffs.

Prediction: Boston in six.

No. 2 Washington Capitals vs. No. 4 Pittsburgh Penguins

Two old playoff foes meet again for the first time since 2001, although this go-around certainly features a bit more intrigue as the two teams have some of the best talent in the game. Two of this year's Hart Trophy nominees in Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin are playing, as well as Sidney Crosby and the nominee for the Norris Trophy Mike Green.

Washington cruised in the regular-season series, going 3-0-1, with the only Pittsburgh win coming in a shootout after the trade-deadline makeover that allowed the defending Eastern Conference champions to rally down the stretch and qualify for the postseason.

The addition of Bill Guerin and Chris Kunitz gave the Pens an element they were missing during a disappointing first half of the regular season in which they were in danger of missing the playoffs, as the two added grit and toughness to a team that sorely missed it with the departure of Ryan Malone to Tampa Bay in the offseason.

The Caps aren't exactly the same team that played for most of the regular season series either, as Jose Theodore was replaced by rookie Simeon Varlamov after one playoff game, and the now-21-year-old Russian was terrific, allowing just seven goals in six games, and a 1.17 GAA and a .952 save percentage.

However, the young prospect will certainly be challenged by a potent Penguins bunch that scored 54 more goals than the Rangers did in the regular season.

The Pens' two big stars, Malkin and Crosby, combined for 17 points in six games, and Malkin led all players in points through the first round with nine. Alex Semin leads the NHL in goals with 5, including a key goal in Game 7 to erase an early Ranger lead.

But, the plus for the Capitals is that Pittsburgh doesn't play the tight defensive game New York does either, meaning the Caps will be a little more comfortable with the style that likely will be used during this series, and while some of the Caps struggled to put the puck in the net against the Rangers, Marc-Andre Fleury isn't on the same level as Henrik Lundqvist either.

Washington is more adaptable with the style Pittsburgh likes to play, and it's likely going to be to the liking of the Caps - and NHL fans everywhere.

It should be a tremendous series between two exceedingly talented teams with an entertaining style of play, with the slight edge to the Capitals who were a better team in the regular season and finished strong with three straight wins against a veteran Rangers club while facing elimination.

Prediction: Washington in seven.

Western Conference:

No. 2 Detroit Red Wings vs. No. 8 Anaheim Ducks

The Red Wings and Sharks fought down the stretch for home-ice in the Western Conference.

Turns out it didn't matter.

The Ducks pulled off the upset of the spring in the first round, ousting the President's Trophy-winning Sharks in six games to advance, in large part to Ryan Getzlav's eight points and Jonas Hiller's fine work in the net.

Anaheim still has a large core from the 2007 Stanley Cup squad, and despite the team struggling through most of the regular season - so much that the team considered trading Chris Pronger at the deadline - they certainly are a much better team than your run-of-the-mill eighth seed.

Two years ago, the Ducks dispatched the Red Wings en route to the Stanley Cup, but this year's Detroit squad is loaded, with Hart Trophy nominee Pavel Datsyuk, along with free-agent addition Marian Hossa and the other talented skaters wearing the winged wheel.

The Wings shredded the Blue Jackets in the first round, overwhelming the Columbus defense and Vezina Trophy candidate Steve Mason with 18 goals in just four games en route to the sweep.

Perhaps Detroit's biggest weakness is in net, as Chris Osgood - already considered the Achilles' Heel in Michigan - looked shaky in the series-clinching win at Nationwide Arena, but the question is if the Ducks' offense can take advantage of their weakness.

Anaheim certainly has more of a balanced attack than the Jackets, but the Wings are certainly looking like the team to beat right now of the eight left standing in the playoffs.

The Ducks certainly should put up a good fight - and make life difficult for the Wings - but the Wings should exact some revenge on Anaheim for their 2007 setback.

Prediction: Detroit in six.

No. 3 Vancouver Canucks vs. No. 4 Chicago Blackhawks

One of the league's up-and-coming teams plays the top goaltender of the first round in the other West series, as while the Blackhawks earned Chicago's first series win since 1996 over Calgary, the Canucks shut down the Blues thanks to a tremendous performance from Roberto Luongo.

The 'Hawks beat the Flames thanks to a very balanced attack, having six players in the top 20 scorers of the first round (and that's not even including Patrick Kane, who missed a game and had four points in five games), and make Miika Kiprusoff look very human by scoring 14 goals in six games in the win.

But they'll need to keep that up against Luongo, who leads the league with a 1.15 GAA and a .962 save percentage vs. St. Louis and led to a sweep of the Blues by allowing just five goals total in the series.

Chicago certainly will give more of a scoring threat to the Blues, but it's clear that Luongo can just dominate a series on his own - although it probably isn't to the Canucks' benefit that they've had over a week of practice in waiting for their next opponent.

Nikolai Khabibulin isn't too bad in his own right, having a Stanley Cup ring from his time in Tampa Bay, and while his numbers aren't up to Luongo's level, he posted a 2.52 GAA and a .914 save percentage against the Flames, and is quite capable of making some key saves when they need it.

This should be a good, closely-fought series, probably going to need the full seven games. However, despite Luongo's heroics, the 'Hawks should have just enough scoring to put them through to the third round.

Prediction: Chicago in seven.

Ovechkin Nominated for Hart

While it certainly wasn't a surprise that Alex Ovechkin earned a nomination for the Hart Trophy for the second straight year, it was a bit of a surprise one of the players he won't be up against this June in Las Vegas.

Many expected perhaps Ovechkin would be up against Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin for the MVP award, only Malkin made the cut of the final three top vote totals, as Pavel Datsyuk of the Red Wings was the other finalist, meaning it's an all-Russian affair for the trophy.

Ovechkin does have a good chance at the Trophy, as the star's 56 goals and strong play helped Washington earn the second seed in the Eastern Conference. While he finished three points short of Malkin's league-leading total of 113, his points were evenly distributed, while the Pens' star struggled a bit down the stretch point-wise, and Pittsburgh certainly needed a late rally to make the postseason.

Datsyuk, who also is nominated for the Selke and Lady Byng, finished fourth in points (97) for the West's second-seeded Red Wings, and certainly was one of the main catalysts on a star-studded Detroit roster.

But it is interesting that voters overlooked Crosby, who finished third in the NHL in points and second and assists, and also had won the 2007 Hart Trophy.

Rangers Series Recap

With the "circus" heading to town starting Saturday and the Capitals set to begin work on their old rivals Thursday at Kettler, it's time to take a quick look back at the Caps' first playoff series win since 1998, the highs and lows of a first-round victory.

Most Valuable Player: Simeon Varlamov, Washington

The boldest move of the series was Bruce Boudreau giving Jose Theodore the bench after a 4-3 loss in Game 1, and it certainly paid off in the long run for the Capitals. Despite having just six games of NHL experience under his belt - with only two of those games coming against playoff teams - Varlamov was excellent in the round, posting a 1.17 goals-against and a .952 save percentage and a pair of shutouts.

He allowed seven goals in six games (including a pair of rather meaningless goals in the last 20 minutes of a blowout win in Game 6), and certainly surpassed the performance of his veteran counterpart from the Rangers. His presence allowed the Capitals to survive a tough New York defense that limited Washington to just 17 goals in the series, a goals-for that was limited to the second-fewest of the teams that advanced to the second round, better than only the Hurricanes.

Despite turning 21 this week, Varlamov was poised and collected throughout the series, only allowing one bad goal to Chris Drury in Game 4, but bounced back to become the first rookie Washington goalie to win a Game 7.

Turning Point of the Series: Matt Bradley's Goals, Game 5

With the Capitals facing elimination at home last Friday, Matt Bradley's superior effort in the first period helped put the Rangers on their heels and led to a chain of events that got New York's coach suspended and eventually into a Capitals victory.

Bradley started his effort on the penalty-kill, taking the puck from Chris Drury and broke in to beat Henrik Lundqvist on a breakaway for a 1-0 lead and a big momentum-changer. A couple of minutes later, he scored a sharp-angle goal that went through Lundqvist's five-hole for a 2-0 lead, and there was no looking back for the Capitals.

Frustrated by the Caps' strong effort, John Tortorella got suspended for his actions behind the bench, and the Caps brought the series back home after a Game 6 win in New York. But had Bradley not potted his first two playoff goals in one period, it might never have happened.

Goat of the Series: Scott Gomez, Rangers

While Gomez led the Rangers in scoring, it certainly was deceiving as the $8 million man only recorded points in a pair of games in the series, and the former defensive specialist finished the series with a -4 rating.

Part of the problem with New York's current makeup is that they have made Gomez and Chris Drury top-line importance with the salary cap, yet he would be on the second and third line of most teams. His salary and ice time demand that he carry the team's offense, and he wasn't up to the task as the Blueshirts only averaged just over one-and-a-half goals per game in the series, leaving no margin for error.

He certainly played well in Game 1, but was mostly absent after that, only recording a tip-in goal in Game 6 to briefly bring the Rangers even in what became a Washington rout.

Had it not been for an injury, the dishonor might have gone to Drury, who clearly wasn't up to task at less than 100 percent. He did score a goal in Game 4 thanks to a poorly played puck by Varlamov, but he finished -6 and coughed up the puck at an inopportune time in Game 5 that turned the series Washington's way.

Irony Award: John Tortorella, Rangers

While he sat uberpest Sean Avery for Game 5 after some undisciplined penalties, the Rangers' coach got himself a seat in the press box for some unruly behavior. With New York failing to close out the Capitals in the third period, Tortorella threw a water bottle into the crowd after some verbal abuse from Capitals fans, and brandished a stick at a fan, needing to be calmed down.

For a team that was holding a 3-1 lead heading into the night, it certainly sent the message that the Rangers were beginning to break at the seams, and the NHL responded by banishing him from the bench for Game 6. Jim Schoenfeld - who is the only other coach to receive a suspension from the NHL - took over behind the bench, but New York was disorganized in Game 6, and by the time the Rangers recovered some momentum in Game 7, the Capitals had recovered to deliver the knockout blow with less than five minutes left in the series.

A Night to Remember at Verizon

Longtime observers of the Caps were trying to remember if any game was as loud as Tuesday's game against the Rangers, as without the help of the old decibel meter that used to go off regularly at the Capital Centre when it reached 100 decibels, there was little doubt a boisterous crowd of 18,277 delivered a dull roar and had the upper deck literally shaking after Sergei Fedorov's goal put the Caps ahead with 4:59 to play in regulation - a goal that eventually sent Washington to the second round.

It isn't often the Caps have had a chance to celebrate a series win in Chinatown, as the win was just the second time Washington has ever closed out an opponent at Verizon Center, with the last time being when they finished off the Senators in the second round back in 1998. It also was just about that long since the Capitals had won a playoff series, as before Fedorov, the last series-clinching goal belonged to Joe Juneau against Dominik Hasek in the Eastern finals of that year.

It also is the first playoff victory under Ted Leonsis, who purchased the team a season after the team's trip to the Stanley Cup Finals.

While the Capitals came into the game riding a pair of victories by a combined score of 9-3, the Rangers were the team that came out flying in the first 13 minutes, keeping Washington without a shot and popping in a goal by Nik Antropov.

But, in a polar opposite of some of the Caps' Game 7 performances of years past, as despite Washington being outplayed for the majority of the contest, it was the beneficiary of a lucky bounce. Mike Green was able to create an odd-man break when he was released from the penalty box, and then Alexander Semin's shot went off the stick of Ryan Callahan, who was trying to backcheck, and the puck fluttered past Henrik Lundqvist into the cage to even the score.

So, despite being badly outplayed, the Caps still managed to escape with a tie after 20 minutes, and continued that trend in the second, even leading to some booing as the team hit the dressing room the second time.

However, that was all forgotten in the third period, as the Caps began to show why they were the team that finished with 13 more points than the Rangers, taking control of the game and then finally Fedorov put in a goal that takes its place along other such scorers as Dale Hunter, John Druce, Brian Bellows and Juneau.

The crowd responded, producing a dull roar that lasted for the remainder of regulation and that didn't subside until the two teams shook hands.

"I don't know what Chicago is like as far as building, other than the National Anthem, but that was the loudest five minutes after we scored," coach Bruce Boudreau said afterwards. "They never sat down. They never stopped cheering. If you look at the energy we had in checking, the fans brought that out of us. They wouldn't let us not continue skating, not continue anything, it was really a thing to watch."

While it was the worst of the Caps' performances in the series, it didn't matter to the players or fans, as unlike the other three one-goal games of the series, this one Washington found a way to emerge victorious and take the series.

Of course, one player that certainly made himself known is Simeon Varlamov, who now has as many playoff games under his belt as he does in the regular season, but posted a 1.17 GAA in the first round with a pair of shutouts, and also came up with some great saves to keep the Caps in the game when they were being badly outplayed.

Afterwards, the young goalie was caked in shaving cream after his 14-save performance, becoming the first Caps rookie goaltender to win a Game 7, after Bob Mason and Jim Carey couldn't do the trick in 1987 and 1995, respectively.

A Russian nearly twice Varlamov's age spoke about it being awhile since he had a big moment, as Fedorov became the oldest player at 39 years and 136 days to ever score a Game 7 winner. It also was the future Hall-of-Famer's 12th playoff game-winning goal, and came off a night where he wasn't so effective over the first 40 minutes, but turned it on when he needed to.

However, while the Capitals were celebrating a series win, they started to turn their attention to their next opponent, which wasn't determined until during Bruce Boudreau's press conference, when reporters didn't hesitate to ask him what he thought of the upcoming series with the Penguins.

But for the Caps franchise, it was a moment frozen in time when Fedorov skated to the faceoff circle, stopped in his track and shot a laser past Lunqvist, giving fans a chance to shed the playoff failures of years past and enjoy a win to savor.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Fedorov Sends Caps Into Second Round

The Capitals got a game-winning goal from their Russian Hart Trophy winner with 4:59 left in regulation to send them to the second round.

Just not from the one you'd expect.

Sergei Fedorov became just the second Capitals player to score a game-winning goal in a Game 7, and also now is the oldest NHLer ever to win a Game 7 after a rifle shot that beat Henrik Lundqvist late in the third period to give Washington a 2-1 win over New York to take the deciding game.

The win gave the Capitals their first series victory since eliminating Buffalo in the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals, and their first Game 7 win since Dale Hunter scored in overtime to eliminate the Flyers in the 1988 Patrick Division semifinals.

Ironically, Washington played perhaps their worst game of the entire series in front of a raucous home crowd, as the Rangers dominated for a good part of the first 40 minutes, but could only beat Simeon Varlamov once.

However, the Capitals took the game over in the third period, outshooting the Rangers 14-1 in the final period and culminating in Fedorov's first goal of the series with less than five minutes to play. The shot beat Lundqvist high on the glove side, sending the patrons into a loud roar that didn't subside until after the two teams shook hands after the horn sounded.

The night certainly didn't look like it was going to go Washington's way early on, as the Rangers came out firing, as Varlamov had to stop a Nik Antropov breakaway after just 40 seconds, but Antropov managed to put the Rangers in front with 5:35 gone in the contest when he buried a puck Varlamov pokechecked from Brandon Dubinsky.

Washington was still stuck in neutral for the game's first 13 minutes, not registering a shot on goal in that time, but the Capitals got a break when a penalty on Mike Green expired, creating a 3-on-2 break for Washington. Off a feed from Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin took a shot with 4:26 left in the period deflected off Ryan Callahan's stick and fluttered past Lundqvist to tie the score at 1-1.

So, despite being outshot 8-2 in the period, the Caps still managed to go into the locker room tied.

The second period wasn't much better, as although they managed to get nine shots on goal, the Rangers spent a lot of time in the Capitals' zone, especially Sean Avery's line. The Caps were being kept to the outside thanks to a stubborn Rangers defense, and didn't create many chances of their own, and even heard some boos after heading off to the dressing room after 40 minutes.

But with a ton of support from the crowd, the Capitals began to generate more chances in the third and challenged Lundqvist more, but the Swede was able to come up with an answer to the challenge - for the first 15 minutes.

However, Fedorov, who had lumbered for a good part of the game, came down the wing, stopped in front of Wade Redden, and fired a shot that beat Lundqvist, sending the Verizon Center into a frenzy with a decibel level perhaps never heard before at a Capitals game.

The crowd didn't relent over the last few mintues, and Semin nearly iced the game with just 2:52 left, but Lundqvist made a terrific save. However, the Caps kept pressing, and the Rangers were barely able to pull their netminder before time ran out on their season.

Washington, who appeared headed for a date with the Devils when time expired, will instead face the Penguins after New Jersey collapsed in the final 1:20 of their Game 7. The Caps rally from a 3-1 deficit is just the 21st time in NHL history and the first in the league since Montreal ousted Boston from the 2004 playoffs, and was the second time in team history, with the last being that 1988 series against Philadelphia. The Rangers also suffer their first defeat after New York took a 3-1 edge in a series.

They also snap a five-game losing streak in Game 7s, now raising their record to 2-5 in those elimination situations. Washington also now is 5-1 in elimination games over the last two years, with the only setback being last year's deciding game loss to Philadelphia in overtime.

The series will start Saturday afternoon at 1PM, with a nationally televised game to kick off the seven-game set.

But for a series that looked like it might be lost just six days ago, the Capitals finally were able to find their offense in time, and did enough to grab a game they could easily have lost and found a way to win.

Checking the Pressure Gauge

Up in New York, John Tortorella went back to his old playbook, insisting the pressure now sat in the Capitals' dressing room after his own team blew a 3-1 lead and now faces a do-or-die Game 7 tonight at Verizon Center.

Using the New York reporters as a barometer, he asked which thought the Rangers would last seven games and then how many thought they'd win - of which none of those in attendance actually picked New York.

Of course, those picks were made well before New York took a 2-0 series lead with a pair of strong efforts. And, that probably wasn't with the consideration that New York would get three really good performances from Henrik Lundqvist - and their defense - to give the Blueshirts three wins - including two in Washington - and just needing one win from the other four to steal the series.

After all, as Tortorella said back in 2003, when his Lightning fell behind the Capitals 2-0 in a first round series, "You go up 2-0 in a series, the pressure is on to close it out."

Add to that the team one win away from the second round is the primary franchise in the nation's largest media market, and one that has never blown a 3-1 lead in a playoff series in the team's 85-year history - despite a playoff record not exactly strewn with a lot of success. New York isn't a place where they exactly are satisfied by a near-miss, as evidenced with the crowd's vocal frustration with the Rangers on Sunday.

Remember, this is a team named as an early favorite to win the East (at least in the Tri-State area, where their hot start was a bit overblown), and one that isn't exactly run on a shoestring budget. New York made some moves to get Derek Morris and Nik Antropov at the deadline showed Glen Sather thought this team could win now, but they still had to sneak into the postseason.

Tortorella, who came over in another attempted to spark the team when Tom Renney was fired in March, is certainly under the gun, as he will be the scapegoat should the Rangers lose tomorrow. From sitting Sean Avery in Game 5 as New York turned in a listless effort, then getting tossed for Game 6 by throwing a water bottle at a fan, he might just have given his team a push in the wrong direction with a chance to close out the series.

New York's margin for error is minimal, with all three of their wins being by a single goal, so any small mistake or miscalculation can be deadly. To the Rangers' advantage, they do have several veterans on the roster, but they're also a very beat up team, especially now with Blair Betts out for tomorrow night's game - a key player on their penalty-killing unit.

To be sure, there is pressure on the Caps, to play in front of the home crowd and needing to avoid being overly cute and taking the game for granted. But, last year's bitter loss to the Flyers certainly will be a fresh reminder of the importance of capitalizing on the momentum gained in the last 120 minutes early, and putting the pressure on the Rangers early with a goal.

Washington was expected beforehand to advance, but that's not really seeming to be bothering the players, who have made a habit this season of turning it on when they needed to. While it certainly has threatened to burn the Capitals, like last season, when their backs were against the wall, they raised their game to a new level and one that the Rangers just can't match without a perfect game.

Ovechkin's teams are now 4-1 in elimination games, with the only one being the Game 7 overtime setback last year. Other than that, they've outscored their opponents 16-7 in those contests, not exactly nail-biters.

So, while Tortorella is hoping his words in 2003 ring true tomorrow, he certainly doesn't have a team that is one year away from a Stanley Cup championship and is reaching a bit to compensate for his own actions which proved to be detrimental and a distraction to his team.

If the Rangers can pull the upset, they certainly will feel relieved - just as the Flyers did after escaping Game 7 last spring - and despite their coach's declaration, it will be seen as an utter failure back home if they do not close out the series.

Tuesday's key may be if Lundqvist can give the Rangers enough to hold off what should be a furious early attack, as the Caps can force the Blueshirts out of their gameplan early if they strike first.

But right now, the Rangers look like they're simply out of gas, a banged-up club that gave the Caps a good fright but might not have enough in the tank to finish the job.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Brashear Suspended Six Games

The Capitals will be without enforcer Donald Brashear for tomorrow night's Game 7, and also either the first five games of the 2009-2010 season or Washington's second-round series against New Jersey or Pittsburgh, following his actions before and during Game 6 Sunday afternoon.

Brashear was handed the suspension this afternoon by Colin Campbell, who gave him one game for his pre-game contact with Colton Orr at the center stripe during warmups, and then five additional for his hit on Blair Betts during the game. Campbell felt the hit was high and meant to target Betts' head, as the Ranger will miss tomorrow night's game for New York.

"Brashear delivered a shoulder hit to an unsuspecting player. It is also my opinion that the hit was delivered late and targeted the head of his opponent, causing significant injury."

For the Capitals, this likely means captain Chris Clark will return to the lineup tomorrow after an injury, and will play in his first postseason action since the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals with the Flames and his first game since Jan. 27th.

Game 7s We Have Known

It certainly isn't every year that the Caps are involved in a Game 7, and it's even rarer that they have two one-game-for-all-the-marbles in back-to-back seasons. In fact, the last time the Capitals faced Game 7s in consecutive seasons was back in 1987 and 1988, when there was a pair of memorable tilts with the Islanders and Flyers... not to mention a not so memorable one against the Devils as a bonus.

So, without further ado, here's a brief look back at all the Game 7s in Caps history:

April 18, 1987: Islanders 3, Capitals 2 (4 OT)

For the Caps, their first Game 7 was one for the ages. After having lost a 3-1 series lead to the Islanders, Washington came out buzzing in the first, capping the period with a Mike Gartner tally. After Patrick Flatley tied the game for New York, little-known Grant Martin tied the score, and it appeared Washington might take the series.

However, both Islanders netminder Kelly Hrudey and Caps goalie Bob Mason started to take over, with only faulty equipment aiding Bryan Trottier's goal with 5:23 to play, leading to one of the most surreal contests in NHL history.

Both teams had ample chances in the extra session, but between Hrudey and Mason - along with some help from the post - they kept the game going. Through three overtimes they played, and with the calendar flipping into Easter Sunday, the game finally ended when Pat LaFontaine spun around and beat Mason with a shot with 8:47 gone in the seventh period, finally sending the crowd home at 1:58AM ET, or over six hours after the game started.

Mason finished the night with 55 saves, while his counterpart had 72 as the Islanders survived to play the Flyers in the Patrick Division Finals.

April 15, 1988: Capitals 5, Flyers 4 (OT)

One year later, the Caps got a much better result out of Game 7, as like the Islanders did to them the year before, they managed to crawl out of a 3-1 hole with a pair of convincing wins in Games 5 and 6. Still, Washington came out flat early, and fell behind 3-0 and appeared to be headed for another short stay in the playoffs.

But Garry Galley got the Caps on the board thanks to a nifty assist from Dale Hunter in the second period, and the entire tenor of the game changed. Washington, who didn't put many shots on Ron Hextall early, unleashed a torrent of goals, until Hunter scored with a power-play goal early in the third period to give the Caps a 4-3 lead.

Philadelphia had one last gasp to force overtime, but it merely set up Hunter's heroics in the extra session, as he took a pass from Larry Murphy, broke in alone on Hextall, and beat him to send the sellout at the Cap Centre into a frenzy.

Washington advanced to the second round against New Jersey.

April 30, 1988: Devils 3, Capitals 2

The Devils, in the team's first-ever playoff appearance, had stunned the New York Islanders in the Patrick Division semis, and advanced to meet Washington for the right to move to the Wales Final. New Jersey rolled out to a 3-2 series lead, but the Caps crushed the Devils 7-2 at the Meadowlands to force Game 7.

Rookie Sean Burke, who had stymied the Capitals early in the series, was strong as the Devils took a 2-0 lead, but the Caps fought back on goals by Grant Ledyard and Garry Galley to even the score after two periods.

But John MacLean, who scored the goal that put the Devils in the playoffs on the final day of the regular season, put the Devils ahead in the third with a goal past Pete Peeters, on a play that the Capitals felt should have been blown dead due to an offside call and they relaxed a bit before Craig Wolanin delivered a shot that MacLean tipped in for the eventual game winner.

May 1, 1992: Penguins 3, Capitals 1

While the Caps put away some of their playoff failures with some series victories in 1990 and 1991, the team got themselves into trouble by blowing a 3-1 lead to the Penguins - who knocked the Caps out the year before. After dealing the defending Cup champs a 7-2 setback in Game 4, Pittsburgh began to roll, winning the next two decisively.

Then, back at Landover, the Penguins broke on top early as Mario Lemieux scored a shorthanded goal. Washington then tied up the game as Al Iafrate scored early in the second period, but Lemieux fed Jaromir Jagr for the eventual game-winner with 10:20 gone in the second period.

Tom Barrasso shut down the Caps the rest of the way, and left the Caps, who finished tied for the league's second-best record, in the dust as the Penguins went on to claim their second consecutive Stanley Cup.

May 18, 1995: Penguins 3, Capitals 0

Easily the most forgettable of the Caps' Game 7s, the Penguins once again fought back from a 3-1 deficit after the strike-shortened season and solved Jim Carey to move onto the second round.

After Luc Robitaille's overtime goal in Game 5 saved the Penguins' season, Pittsburgh crushed Washington 7-1 in Game 6 at Landover, and then headed back to Pittsburgh for the deciding game.

Ken Wregget delivered the shutout as the Penguins finished off the Caps with a 3-0 victory.

April 22, 2008: Flyers 3, Capitals 2 (OT)

In their first playoff series in five years, the Caps roared back from a 3-1 deficit to force a decisive Game 7 at Verizon Center, and were rolling into a raucous home building.

Nicklas Backstrom opened the scoring for Washington 5:42 into the game, but Scottie Upshall tied the game with 4:22 left in the first period. Philadelphia then went up near the halfway point of the second, but Alex Ovechkin evened the score with 4:31 left in the second.

Neither team could score in the third period, but overtime was decided as Tom Poti tripped up R.J. Umberger and led to a Philadelphia power play. With the man advantage almost killed, the Flyers' Scottie Upshall scored to advance the Flyers, while the Caps just missed a chance to complete their comeback.

So, April 28, 2009 becomes the seventh deciding game in Washington's playoff history, but the first against the Rangers, now meaning the Caps will have played at least one against all of their old Patrick Division rivals.

Ironically, the Rangers have also played just one more Game 7 in their long history, and only three since the Caps joined the National Hockey League in 1974. They have won their last three, but the last two were in 1994 en route to the Stanley Cup. In their history, the home team has won all seven games.

Of course, the Caps will be looking to make a bit of history tomorrow night at Verizon Center, and improve their luck in their seventh Game 7 in club history.

Can Caps Solve Game 7 This Year?

Last year, the ingredients were there for the Capitals to complete a comeback from a 3-games-to-1 deficit, having earned victories in Game 5 and Game 6 to force a decisive Game 7 with the Flyers apparently on the ropes.

However, what was a stirring comeback fell short in overtime of the deciding game, with the Caps unable to close out Philadelphia and falling just short of the second such comeback in franchise history.

Now, one year later, the Capitals again took Game 5 at home and earned a Game 6 road win to fight off elimination, and will return to Verizon Center for a Game 7.

The Caps are well aware that Sunday's victory doesn't mean an automatic bye to the next round, but the signs right now are a lot different than they were a year ago.

Last year's Capitals and Flyers were very evenly matched, and despite the Caps having the higher seed by virtue of the Southeast Division title, Philadelphia had one more point in the standings. The two teams had split their regular-season series, with only an empty-netter keeping all four games from being one-goal decisions.

The Flyers took advantage of the Caps' playoff inexperience early, but the Capitals matched their intensity in Games 5 and 6 before losing a hard-fought Game 7. The three games were all close, with the Caps earning just a margin of three goals in the two victories.

This year, the Rangers weren't exactly the Capitals' equal, finishing 13 points behind the Capitals in the standings and only earning one shootout win in four tries against Washington in the regular season.

But thanks to a hot start by Henrik Lundqvist and not exactly a hot start by some of the Capitals' stars, the Rangers were able to play well enough to hold off the Caps in three of the first four games.

However, with the Caps racheting up intensity in Game 5 - and perhaps Lundqvist and the Rangers being worn down by the workload - this series has taken a dramatic - and very sharp - turn in Washington's favor.

While the Caps aren't shooting the puck as often as they did in the first four games of the series, they are hitting the net with better chances and creating some prime space in the Rangers' deteriorating defense. Washington has nine goals on Lundqvist in just four periods, scoring those on just 34 shots in the two games.

Last year's Games 5 and 6 were tight affairs, with the outcome in some doubt until the final buzzer. This year's games have been salted away well before the second intermission, with the Rangers not having the offense to compensate if the Caps strike early.

The Caps are just getting stronger as the series progresses towards the final game, while the Rangers just aren't getting the effort necessary to keep up with the faster, stronger and more talented Washington team. New York was able to play a defensive style that limited the Caps' chances for the bulk of the first four games, but now, the Caps have exploited the Rangers, getting the opportune goals (such as Poti's goal after popping out of the box Sunday).

To win Game 7, the Rangers will have to be nearly flawless, clamping down, limiting Washington's chances and hoping that Lundqvist will return to his strong form of two weeks ago.

Otherwise, it's hard to imagine the Blueshirts will be able to prevent the Capitals from moving to 6-1 in elimination games the past two years and finally get a chance to advance to the second round for the first time in 11 years.

Definitely the Blue Seats

Spending an afternoon in the Madison Square Garden rafters is kind of like spending an afternoon with a bunch of fifth-graders. While Ranger fans are know the game and certainly are more creative in their barbs than, say their counterparts in Philadelphia - who usually end every insult with a word that rhymes with pucks - they kind of just don't really know where to cross the line.

They enjoy the infamy, still using the "Potvin Sucks" chant left over from an incident in a playoff series thirty years ago as a constant thread from year to year - even though many of the younger fans don't really know who Potvin was.

And with all due respect to the talented Dan Steinberg, calling a group of fans who chanted Donald Brashear was a name that got sportscasting legend Howard Cosell fired isn't exactly what I call "polite" behavior.

The crowd certainly was geared up for the beginning of the game, and certainly made their distaste for the visiting fans known. Walking around the "World's Most Famous Arena," there were blue-clad fans calling several Washington fans "hicks" and many variations of homosexual slurs for those wearing Caps sweaters. They also threw objects at some fans once Milan Jurcina put the Caps up 1-0 - and threatening them not to stand up for another Caps goal (although the fans just ignored their counterparts without incident).

They then roared back to life when Scott Gomez scored to even the game, but after Mike Green and Tom Poti really put the Rangers behind the 8-ball and certainly led to an air of frustration by the home fans.

Even though the Rangers wouldn't be anywhere near a sixth game in a first-round series without their All-Star netminder, despite the fact his defense had pretty much abandoned him, they gave him the Bronx cheer when he made a save, even cracking a joke when he was struck in the mask.

Frustration built up with another pair of goals, leading the fans in the 400 level - still known as the blue seats even though they've been redone since the old days of MSG - were insulting not only the Caps, but their own team as well.

The irony of all this is Glen Sather issued a statement Sunday defending John Tortorella's actions Friday night.

Throughout the game, several people seated immediately behind the visitors' bench took advantage of the looseness of the glass panels and the unusually wide gaps between the panels to assault the Rangers with some of the most obscene language imaginable.

While I'm not one to condone that kind of behavior, last time I checked, Tortorella and his players are well-compensated professionals and I'm sure have heard insults from fans around the league. But if Sather is so shocked, perhaps he should spend a little time with the fans who pay $100 to sit in the seats and see what kind of language is going around his own building.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Capitals Spoil Garden Party

A raucous crowd packed Madison Square Garden Sunday afternoon, expecting the Rangers to shake off their poorest performance of the series in Game 5, and thinking that New York would punch its ticket to a second-round date with Boston by beating the Caps at home in Game 6.

Instead, the Capitals were very rude guests, delivering more of a crushing defeat than the previous one and dimming the Rangers' hopes of advancing with a 5-3 win that was only close on the final scoresheet thanks to a pair of late cosmetic tallies by New York.

With the win, the Caps force a decisive Game 7 Tuesday at Verizon Center, and for the second year in a row, the team has erased a three-games-to-one deficit in a playoff series to push the series to the full seven games. Now, this year, Washington will look to complete the comeback with a win after having fallen to Philadelphia in overtime last spring.

While Washington has been getting stronger as the series has progressed, so too have the Rangers started to look less and less cohesive, even leaving the fans giving Henrik Lundqvist a Bronx cheer late in the scond period after he allowed five goals on 20 shots in the Rangers' second straight loss.

Tom Poti, not exactly a fan favorite in Manhattan, had a game to remember as well, scoring a goal and three assists for his first four-point night since 2004 - when he was a member of the Blueshirts.

Many expected the Rangers to come out flying with a chance to close out the series at home, but New York really didn't build off the energy that was present in the building. The Blushirts had one or two decent chances in the first few minutes, but couldn't convert.

Milan Jurcina then put a damper on the proceedings by blasting a shot past Lundqvist just 7:09 into the game, briefly silencing a crowd that had seen its team turn in a lousy performance in Game 5.

However, Shaone Morrisonn was whistled for a penalty just :23 after Jurcina's tally, and the Rangers took advantage. Scott Gomez tipped in a Wade Redden shot just 1:06 after the Caps took the lead, and brought the Garden back to life.

A hit by Donald Brashear on Blair Betts that left the Ranger woozy riled up the crowd, and then the Capitals scored a pair of goals less than four minutes apart to really put them in an angry mood.

With Paul Mara then being sent off for holding, Mike Green finally got his first goal of the series with 6:02 left in the first, burying a deflected Alexander Semin shot to put the Caps in the lead.

Then after Tom Poti was whistled for a delay of game penalty, the man-disadvantage actually helped the Caps after the kill. A blocked Ranger pass created a 3-on-1 with Poti coming out of the box, and after a tic-tac-toe passing play with Boyd Gordon and Dave Steckel, Poti completed the play with his second goal of the series with 2:46 left to play and really put the Caps in control.

Washington continued to press in the second period, and Viktor Kozlov really put the game out of reach after breaking in and putting the puck past Lundqvist and tumbling into the goaltender with 10:39 to play in the frame.

Then, Ovechkin added another tally, tipping in Poti shot for a 5-1 lead with 3:16 left in the period, leaving the majority of the crowd that expected a series win heading for the exits and Lundqvist pulled for the second straight game after stopping just 15 of 20 shots.

Perhaps the only negative of the game for the Capitals was the third period in which they played perhaps an overly passive frame and took a couple of stupid penalties, which potentially could have gotten New York back in the contest by giving them a pair of 5-on-3s, one of which Ryan Callahan scored his second of the series on. But, the Caps held the Rangers at bay for most of the period, only allowing a meaningless goal by Marc Staal with just :05.4 left in regulation to seal the 5-3 final score.

Now, the Capitals come off a pair of convincing wins while facing elimination, outscoring the Rangers 9-3 and never trailing New York in the past two games. Unlike the Rangers' previous Game 3 loss at home, New York had trouble keeping up with Washington in the contest, and the gap between the two clubs appears to be getting wider as the Caps hit their stride and the Rangers are sputtering.

But, now, the series will boil down to one game Tuesday night, with the winner earning a trip to the second round. It appears the Rangers will have to play a perfect game against Washington in order to advance, but if the Caps can duplicate the effort they had against New York in the past two games, they will have an excellent chance to celebrate their first playoff series win since 1998.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

New York Readies for Game 6

Up in Gotham, the natives aren't exactly sure to expect tomorrow afternoon from the home team, as following last night's drubbing at Verizon Center, there's a bit of uneasiness among Ranger fans heading into Game 6.

Talking to some Ranger fans around the city, they were still shaking their heads about how bizarre this series has been with some twists and turns, and if Alex Ovechkin will turn it on in the final two games to negate Henrik Lundqvist. The fans are certainly appreciative of the team's effort to push the Caps this far, but there's some unease if they will actually manage to push Washington over the cliff.

They're still a confident bunch, although Game 5 certainly wasn't a comforting scene as the Caps thoroughly dominated play Friday with New York getting a chance to end the series in five.

Of course, being New York, the Yankees' series against the Red Sox and the Jets trading up to draft USC quarterback Mark Sanchez in the first round was the big topic around town, with the Rangers and to some lesser extent, the Devils, being background noise in the crowded sports scene (fortunately, they pretty much ignored the Mets pounding the Nats again, dropping the local baseball franchise to 10 games below .500 just 16 games into the season).

Still, the 18,200 at Madison Square Garden figure to try to do their best to influence the game tomorrow, as they look for their club to advance to the second round for the third straight year, and also they don't want to see their club blow a 3-1 lead for the first time in their long history.

And now, with John Tortorella being suspended for his bottle-tossing ability, it certainly will put the MSG security on higher alert for some fans looking to take their frustrations out on the Capitals - although a couple of "fans" have already practiced their bottle-tossing in Game 3 during the last couple of minutes of Washington's 4-0 win.

And, even though Jim Schoenfeld has his infamous place in history, it'd be hard imagine he'd be rolling out the water-bottle throw as he goes solo behind the bench. But perhaps if the Caps hired Bryan Trottier in the next 12 hours, they could get a re-enactment from the last time Schoney was behind the bench during a Caps playoff series.

Still, it figures to be a wild scene at the Garden Sunday, and the Capitals will have to withstand both what figures to be an early surge from both the team and the crowd, with perhaps the balance of the series hinging on if New York can take the early lead... or if the Capitals can silence the crowd early with a goal of their own.

Tortorella Suspended for Game 6

A strange first-round series got even stranger, as the Rangers will be without their head coach as they try to close out the Capitals Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

John Tortorella won't be behind the bench for the Rangers, as he's been suspended by the league for his throwing a water bottle at a fan during the third period of Washington's 4-0 victory.

"While it is a difficult decision to suspend a coach at this point in a playoff series, it has been made clear to all of our players, coaches and other bench personnel that the National Hockey League cannot -- and will not -- tolerate any physical contact with fans,” NHL Senior Executive Vice President and Director of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell said. "We do not take this action lightly. It is the result of an entire day of investigation and evaluation that included the retrieval and review of videotape of the incident and discussions with Mr. Tortorella, other Rangers' bench personnel and a number of other people, including the security personnel at the Verizon Center."

According to the Washington Post, the attack wasn't provoked by anything but jeering directed at the Rangers bench.

And, of course, the irony is that the game where Tortorella threw the water bottle is the one where he sat out superpest Sean Avery... for a lack of discipline.

So, now while Avery almost certainly will be in the lineup as the Rangers try to take the series, Tortorella won't be behind the bench. This leaves the coaching duties to former Caps coach Jim Schoenfeld - who was coaching Washington the last time the two teams met in the playoffs in 1994.

Pressure Shifting Northward

While the Capitals have been under the gun since dropping the first two games at home in the series, it appears some of the pressure has really begun to get to the Rangers with just one win needed to advance to the second round.

Between John Tortorella getting into it with some fans behind the Rangers' bench, to Henrik Lundqvist letting in some uncharacteristically bad goals, to Sean Avery taking a seat in the press box after taking two bad penalties late in Game 4, this cool and collected bunch that had frustrated Washington in three of four games was in disarray Friday night.

The most visible was an incident where the Rangers' coach threw a water bottle and pointed a player's stick at some fans behind the bench, and although it's unclear exactly what transpired to begin the incident.

The Washington Post says no fans were ejected for unruly behavior and an usher didn't see anyone toss anything at the bench. But a full water bottle hit a season-ticket holder, and certainly punctuated what was an ugly night for the Rangers.

Now, while the Caps had delivered a 4-0 win in Game 3, it certainly wasn't as emphatic as this one, as the game was effectively declared over once Alexander Semin scored just under five minutes into the second period, and Tortorella raised the white flag in the third by putting backup netminder Stephen Valiquette in because he admitted the team was "going nowhere" in the first two periods.

Still, the team that had frustrated the Capitals for 240 minutes of hockey wasn't in the house Friday, as after a lackluster power play to begin the game just reverted to the team that dominated the Rangers in the regular season.

So, it will be worth watching how the Rangers react to their first real adversity of the series, and coming home to a crowd that will be in full force to support their team - but likely very wary should the Capitals break on top early. While New York has held most of the cards - and luck - so far in the first four games, with the Capitals now beginning to come to life as they got pushed to the edge, the Blueshirts now look a little bit ragged and certainly lost their composure Friday night.

Game 6 Likely Will Decide Series

The Capitals elevated their game for Game 5 and were able to enjoy some of the success they had against the Rangers in the regular season, while for the first time, the Rangers really looked like the team that finished seventh in the Eastern Conference and just clung onto a playoff spot.

While Washington had outplayed New York for long stretches earlier in the series, Friday night's game wasn't even close once the Caps buried some early chances and chased Henrik Lundqvist with a pair of goals from Matt Bradley - his first two career goals in the postseason - after just 12:07 of the contest.

Now, for the second time in the series, the Capitals will look to build on the momentum against a strong performance against Lundqvist, scoring four goals on 14 shots. The Swede had a .946 save percentage in the series coming into Friday night's action, but only had 10 saves before getting lifted for Stephen Valiquette before the third period.

Of course, a big difference is that the Caps took fewer shots than their previous games, but took better shots. While Washington was limited to shots on the perimeter for the bulk of their 149 shots in four games, three of four Friday's goals were scored within a short distance of the cage, with the fourth taking advantage of a clean shot off a faceoff win.

Bradley got a chance to break in when he took advantage of an obviously struggling Chris Drury and buried a breakway chance for the first goal of the game. Bradley then caught the All-Star goaltender looking confused as he stood up to stop a sharp-angle drive that snuck through his pads for a 2-0 lead.

Semin beat Lundqvist from the top of the circle in the second period off a clean win from Nicklas Backstrom at the dot, and Alex Ovechkin turned a highlight goal in the final minute of the frame to put the nail in the Rangers' coffin on the night, as with the Blueshirts having generated just two goals in their last two games, it was a tall order for them to make up that deficit.

Now, the question is, do the Caps carry the intensity they displayed on Friday night when the series shifts back to New York Sunday afternoon? Of course, it is still a must-win for Washington, as if it fails to earn its second road win, the season still will come to an end. But for the Rangers, it likely will be a critical game as well, as if they cannot close this series out at Madison Square Garden, it's hard to fathom that they will be able to steal a game on the road Tuesday night.

The Capitals put on their best two games of their first-round loss to Philadelphia in Games 5 and 6, and clearly Game 5 of this year's series was their best so far of this series. Playing its best, Washington is simply dominating the Rangers, putting on better shots and enough pressure on Lundqvist to outscore New York's sputtering offense, and with Varlamov being stingy at the other end, it has reduced New York's margin for error to nearly nil without playing a perfect game.

Another aspect of New York's game that was missing Friday was Sean Avery, who is the sparkplug for the Rangers' audience but was forced to take a seat in the press box courtesy of a fuming John Tortorella after taking two penalties late in Game 4 that nearly cost the team a win. He certainly will be back on the ice Sunday, and certainly will be motivated to get back out on the ice.

One key Sunday will be the Capitals getting on the board first.

In Game 3, the Caps scored first, sucking the life out of the 18,200 at the "World's Most Famous Arena," and forced the Rangers to try to come out of their defensive stance and use its limited offensive prowess, and held off the Rangers with a 4-0 win. But in Game 4, a pair of Ranger goals allowed them to play their game, daring the Caps to shoot from long range and keeping them at bay thanks to Lundqvist.

Game 5 followed in Game 3's footsteps, and now the Caps will look to hold off what is sure to be a furious Rangers start to Game 6, as while the Rangers are leading the series despite now being outscored 12-7 in five games, they know it will be very difficult for them to win a Game 7 in Washington after blowing a 3-1 lead.

Expect the Rangers to treat Sunday as a de facto Game 7, and the Capitals will need to match the home team's intensity.

Simply put, if the Caps team plays as well as they did Friday night, it's going to be difficult to foresee the Rangers being able to steal one of the final two games unless Lundqvist is absolutely brilliant.

The other worrisome aspect for the Rangers is that Ovechkin is starting to light the lamp again, scoring his second in two games with a highlight reel effort that went through three Rangers and saw him score while falling down. Ovechkin now has six points in five games, and of course, was one of the keys in last year's Game 6 win in Philadelphia.

If the Rangers advance, they're going to need to do so in Game 6, as if the series comes back to Washington Tuesday, it's going to be difficult for New York to deal with the momentum and a surging Caps team to earn the upset.

So Sunday should be quite a game, and the team that comes out with more desperation and energy likely will be the one that will be extending its season into May.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Bradley, Varlamov Help Caps Force Game 6

With their backs up against the wall, the Capitals came out firing Friday night, and using their most complete performance so far this series, Washington blanked New York 4-0 and extended its season at least until Game 6 Sunday.

Matt Bradley scored a pair of goals in the first period and Simeon Varlamov did the rest, stopping all 20 shots he faced for his second shutout in three games for the Caps.

Washington had its fewest shots on goal so far in the series with just 21, but made them count, chasing Henrik Lundqvist with four goals on just 14 shots in the first two periods, leaving the Blueshirts to put Stephen Valiquette in for mop-up duty in the third.

In front of a fired-up home crowd, Washington got an early power-play chance when Scott Gomez was whistled for slashing, but the Caps couldn't get a shot with the extra-man chance, but it wasn't long before the Capitals got the all-important first goal.

When Brian Pothier was sent off for tripping 3:40 into the game, the Caps were the ones who cashed in with a goal. Bradley pressured injured Rangers star Chris Drury, creating a turnover and then collected the loose puck and broke in on Lundqvist and beat him on the breakaway to put Washington up on top just 4:58 into the contest.

The Caps had another shot to build on their lead with the power-play when the Rangers were caught with too many men on the ice, but after another unsuccessful power play, Bradley was the hero again, taking the puck at a sharp angle and beating Lundqvist with 7:53 to play on just the fourth shot of the period.

It was the softest goal the Rangers' All-Star had allowed all series, and proved to be deflating to New York, who had hoped to be able to withstand the Capitals' early pressure and move on to a second-round date with the Bruins. Instead, they found themselves down 2-0 and had trouble trying to beat the Caps' young Russian goalie and generating chances to climb back in the game.

The Rangers' hole became even bigger just 4:57 into the second, when Alex Semin snapped the puck off the crossbar and in off a faceoff win by Nicklas Backstrom for a 3-0 lead, and the Caps were en route to their second win in three games.

Alex Ovechkin then added some icing on the cake with a spectacular tally, picking up the puck along the Washington blueline, skating down along the boards near the benches, and then turning right past Nikolai Zherdev. Ovechkin then turned towards the goal and put the puck between Derek Morris' skates, and broke in on Lundqvist, and then despite being taken down by Aaron Voros, slid the puck in the cage with :29 left in the period to salt the game away for the Capitals.

Ovechkin, who scored his first goal of the series Wednesday with a spectacular blast, was a bit more acrobatic with this tally for his second in two games.

There was a big scrum at the end of the second period when the Rangers broke in and couldn't hear the horn over the raucous crowd, and shot the puck at Varlamov, leading to John Erskine and Ryan Callahan being assessed roughing minors.

Washington limited New York to just 10 shots in the first two periods, and despite the Rangers' best effort, Varlamov kept them off the board with 10 more saves in the third, giving the Caps a convincing victory in a must-win situation.

And now, after coming into the game with the goaltender that was thought to have gotten into Washington's heads, Varlamov now has allowed just three goals in four games against the Rangers. For the team that scored the fewest goals of any playoff team, they're having trouble lighting the lamp against the Russian, and turning the tables on the Blueshirts.

It's the second straight year the Caps have fought off elimination at home in a Game 5, and now Washington heads up to New York for a Sunday afternon game to force one more home game.

Caps Up Against the Wall Tonight

Washington's Stanley Cup hopes for this spring simply boil down to seeing if they can extend its season by two days tonight, as they face elimination by the Rangers in Game 5 at Verizon Center.

After a frustrating three out of four games to start the series, the Capitals must do what they did in Game 4 - charge the net, create traffic in front of Henrik Lundqvist, and make the Rangers pay for any penalties with their potent power play.

Now, the Caps should come out tonight with a strong surge, as they know a loss tonight ends seven month's of work from the start of training camp, and will leave them with a very long - and very bitter - summer.

One flaw in this Capitals team is the effort level isn't quite the same as when the team isn't in dire straits as when it's in desperation mode, something that Caps fans have seen before... just it was wearing black-and-gold at the time.

The Penguins of the 1990s had a nasty habit of coming back against the Capitals during the playoffs, recovering twice from a 3-1 deficit to advance to the next round.

Like those series back in the 1990s, the team with less firepower was able to harness their opponent for the first four games, leaving the more-talented team frustrated. However, the series would turn in Game 5, as the firepower won out.

It worked for the most part for the Penguins - save when they weren't playing David Volek's Islanders - to flip the switch on and off, although you never knew quite what to expect from those teams.

Kind of like the Caps.

Last year, the Caps reached a different level starting in Game 5 of their series against Philadelphia, playing a markedly better game when there was no room for error. They surged to push that Flyers team to overtime of the deciding game before falling in the extra frame, and nearly becoming the first team since 2004 to rally from a 3-1 deficit in a playoff series.

In that series, Martin Biron was frustrating the Caps with a shutout and an impressive two-overtime win in Game 4 before Washington managed to crack his armor when they needed to. This year, of course, Lundqvist has been even better... but Washington's Simeon Varlamov has also been better than Cristobal Huet was in last year's postseason up through four games.

Beyond even that playoff series, Washington's drive to last year's playoffs also saw a different level of play, as the team lost just once in the final month of the campaign, going 11-1-0 to narrowly edge out the Carolina Hurricanes for the Southeast Division crown.

But with a relatively easy path to the playoffs, this team hasn't faced much adversity this year, coasting to the division title and securing the No. 2 seed. But now, with their backs up against the wall, they have to win three straight against an opponent that, while good defensively, also has had trouble lighting the lamp and has three one-goal victories in this series.

There's no doubt which has been the better team in the first four games of the series, but a combination of good goaltending by Lundqvist and New York taking advantage of its breaks - and fortunate bounces - have them one win away from advancing. Of course, the question will be if the Caps can change their own luck over the next 60 minutes, or if the Rangers can continue to hang on by their fingernails to control of this series.

Now, the Caps once again will need to rally in order to earn a date with the Devils, Flyers or Penguins in the second round, otherwise, the Rangers will punch their ticket to face the Bruins in round two.

And, we'll see if this is a case of the Caps trying to ramp up their game to the next level, as they face their first elimination game of the spring tonight. If history is any indicator, this might be a markedly different series if Washington can get its game ramped up like they have in the past.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Green Named Norris Finalist

After a terrific regular season in which he scored 31 goals and 73 points, Mike Green was named one of the three finalists for the Norris Trophy as the NHL's best defenseman, which will be handed out in Las Vegas on June 18h.

Green will be up against Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara, as well as six-time Norris winner Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit.

Despite missing 14 games, Green had a tremendous season at the Caps' blueline, notching 18 power-play goals, and established a new record for consecutive goals by a defenseman by notching eight games in a row. He also was tied for fifth among NHL defenseman with a +24 rating for the season.

He'll be up against tough competition, as Chara was one of the keys to the NHL's best defense in Boston, notching a +23 and helping to contain some of the league's best offensive players with his large size and strength.

Lidstrom simply has been a Norris mainstay, winning the award six times in his career, and despite missing time with an injury, still finished with a +31 rating for the campaign.

It should be a close race, with Green having a decent shot at becoming the first Capital to win the award since Rod Langway won back-to-back titles in 1983 and 1984.

Deja Vu in Washington... 23 Years Later

This season when the Capitals were making a run at the franchise's all-time points record, it was the 1985-86 squad that held the record of 107 points that was the hallmark until this year's edition.

Ask any long-time Washington fan can tell you what happened to that year's team, and it likely will be one of the team's biggest missed opportunities in franchise history - and ended at the hands of the Rangers.

That edition of the Caps did get through the first round by sweeping the Islanders out in a three-game series, and after the Patrick Division's fourth-place club took care of the first-place Flyers, who had 110 points and finished 32 points ahead of the Rangers - who narrowly edged out the Penguins for the final playoff spot in the division.

So, with that path cleared for the franchise's first division title with a rather lopsided matchup, the Capitals suffered a tough six-game loss, as the series turned on a tough loss in Game 4 at the Garden and ended up losing in six games. In fact, that 6-5 overtime loss came 23 years ago to the day today, and ended perhaps the team's best chance at lofting the Stanley Cup as a team with four future Hall-of-Famers couldn't beat John Vanbeisbrouck and advance to face the Montreal Canadiens in the Wales Conference Finals - losing three one-goal games.

While other Caps teams eventually broke through to the conference final (in 1990) and eventually the Stanley Cup Final (in 1998), that team probably also represented the biggest disappointment in franchise history, losing to a team well behind them in the standings thanks to a hot netminder. With the defending Stanley Cup champion Edmonton Oilers having fallen to the Calgary Flames on Steve Smith's own goal in seven games in the Smythe Division final, the Caps would have been the only team left in the postseason with more than 89 points, and the team's best overall chance to lift the Stanley Cup probably evaporated with a 2-1 loss on April 27, 1986 at the Garden.

While this year's Rangers are much more talented than that version of the Blueshirts, it still will be seen as a big disappointment if the Captials cannot climb out of their 3-1 hole against Henrik Lundqvist and New York. The window of opportunity isn't quite the same as it was back then in 1986 with the Bruins through already and the Red Wings likely going to close out Columbus, but still, a first-round exit will extend the Capitals' playoff drought to a dozen years heading into next season, and also likely dampen what had been a large groundswell of support for the franchise.

Those Bryan Murray teams were usually squads that had good regular seasons, but couldn't adapt to the playoffs well and had trouble raising their game, and now, the Caps are facing similar questions through four games of this year's postseason.

As several players noted earlier in the series, they knew their effort in the first two games was good enough for a regular-season contest, but not a playoff contest. And after delivering a playoff-type effort Monday, they didn't quite jump that bar Wednesday night.

At least this version of the Capitals showed life after falling behind 3-1 to Philadelphia in what was a fairly ugly Games 3 and 4 at Wachovia Center. The Caps have played decently in all the contests, but aren't quite reaching that level where they are outplaying the Rangers.

They are quite capable of reeling three wins in a row against New York. The only question is if they will.

Time is running out for the Caps to avoid what will go down as one of the biggest disappointments in Washington playoff history - probably since that 1986 squad was ousted by the Rangers.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

A Bit of Good News on Tap?

Well, Mike Green has been one of the bigger disappointments so far for Washington in this year's playoffs, but he should earn a rare honor for a Capital on Thursday.

Green is expected to be among the three finalists for the Norris Trophy for the top defenseman in the NHL, perhaps with Boston's Zdeno Chara and six-time Norris winner Nicklas Lidstrom of the Red Wings.

The 23-year-old blueliner had the most goals (31) by an NHL defenseman since Kevin Hatcher lit the lamp 34 times in 1992-93, scoring 18 power-play goals for a franchise record. Of course, he also set the NHL record by scoring in eight straight games in January and February.

And, all this despite missing 14 games with an injury.

A Capitals defenseman hasn't won the Norris since Rod Langway took the award in back-to-back seasons in 1982-83 and 1983-84. Scott Stevens was nominated for the trophy in 1987-88, but finished second to Boston's Ray Bourque.

Green and Chara will likely have a tight race for the award, with the Capitals and Bruins being the top two teams in the East. Lidstrom, while a regular at the awards ceremony, might miss out on his seventh due to missing several games due to injury.

The other Capital expected to garner an awards nomination is, of course, Alex Ovechkin, who likely will be among the finalists for the Hart Trophy, which are announced Wednesday. Of course, Caps fans hope that Ovechkin and the Caps will be preparing for their second-round opponent when that takes place, not in the aftermath of an early playoff exit.

Capitals One Goal Short Again

The statistical oddity of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series is that while the Capitals have outscored the Rangers in the series 8-7, it's New York that now holds a 3-1 edge with a chance to eliminate Washington Friday night.

For the third time in four games, the Rangers won the close one, as like their other two losses in this series, the Capitals could not rally from behind and failed to convert on several power plays down the stretch to even the game and force overtime.

Unfortunately for Washington, they didn't quite match the intensity and good start of Game 3, and despite a couple of goal posts throughout the contest, only Alex Ovechkin's first goal of the series got past Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist perhaps put in his finest effort of the series so far, stopping 38 of 39 shots, but also got help with a pair of posts to grab the victory.

While Simeon Varlamov was solid in net, his one rookie-like mistake turned into the game-winning goal, as he fumbled a puck on a soft Chris Drury shot. Drury, playing with a bad hand, lifted the loose puck into the net early in the second for a 2-0 lead that held up as the winner.

But the power-play, which contributed four goals in the first three games, was kept off the board in six attempts, including a gift of a dumb high-sticking call from Sean Avery with 3:09 to play which didn't generate a good opportunity.

While the Caps seemed content to feed Ovechkin and look for him to score, but besides Sergei Fedorov's shot off the crossbar, some of the other Caps' key players didn't really get many chances.

Although Ovechkin finally broke his goalless streak, another Cap that will need to pick up his game is Mike Green, who had no points tonight and also had his most pertinent moment being clocked at the blueline. For a defenseman with 30 goals on the season, he has been a non-factor on the power play, seemingly hesitant to shoot with the Rangers looking for the block.

So, for the second straight year, the Capitals head home after a tough Game 4 loss and now will have to face the prospect of winning three games in a row in order to avoid losing to a lower-seeded team. While last year it was more expected against the Flyers - who had more points than the Capitals - this year, it's much more of a disappointment against a team that finished 13 points behind them in the standings.

The Caps did play their best game in that series when their backs were against the wall, but unlike last year when they were playing a lesser playoff netminder in Martin Biron, they have to do it against Lundqvist who will just gobble up the long shots the Caps mostly are putting on against the Rangers.

While Lundqvist has been good, the Caps didn't quite have the good chances they did Monday, electing to shoot more from long-range and not getting the in-close chances they did the other night.

Of course, part of the problem was giving up the lead on a Ranger team that could settle into a defensive mode. The first goal early on Monday was huge because it forced the Rangers to take more chances, and play less of a shell. Once New York took a lead late in the first, they were happy to sit back and let the Caps shoot on Lundqvist from outside, and the Caps couldn't get more than one past him.

Another problem is the Caps seem to need more consistent effort, as several players - including Alexander Semin - didn't have the contribution they did Monday, and it resembled the good regular-season-type effort Washington had put forth in the two games in D.C. It was good enough for a regular-season win, but against a veteran team playing with an increased intensity, it isn't going to get the job done.

Washington now will have to come out strong in Game 5 and put the pressure on the Rangers, who know the Caps will have no room for error and likely will throw more of the same for whatever time remains in the series as they will look to advance to the second-round with a date with the top-seeded Bruins.

If they're going to avoid the upset, they're going to need a comeback that hasn't been seen by a Washington team since Dale Hunter ousted the Flyers in 1988.

Capitals Drop Game 4, Face Elimination Friday

The Rangers found the formula they used to grab a pair of wins in Washington last week on Wednesday night, getting a couple of fortunate bounces and timely saves to take a 2-1 victory and head down to D.C. with a chance to close out the series Friday night.

Washington couldn't quite match the urgency they displayed Monday night until after they fell behind by a pair of strange goals, and allowed the Rangers to take a 2-0 lead in the game's first 23 minutes. New York then sat back and blocked shots and dared the Caps to beat Henrik Lundqvist, and despite one bullet by Alex Ovechkin, they held.

The Capitals came out firing when down a pair in the third, and while Ovechkin got his first of the series early in the frame, Washington could draw no closer despite some good chances, including a pair of terrible penalties late by New York superpest Sean Avery.

Unlike Monday night, the Rangers were the team that came out flying out of the gates, outshooting Washington 11-9 for the first time in the opening stanza of the series and cashing on a fluky goal with 6:05 left to take the early lead.

Simeon Varlamov was strong early, stopping several good New York chances, with his best stopping Nikolai Zhedrev up close with 6:09 to play. Unfortunately, on the ensuing face off, Paul Mara's shot from the point redirected off John Erskine's stick past Varlomov to end the rookie's shutout streak at 126:17, and the Rangers had a 1-0 lead with just over six minutes to play.

Sergei Fedorov nearly evened the score with around four minutes left in the period, hitting the crossbar on an Ovechkin drop pass, but New York took a 1-0 lead to the dressing room.

The second period also saw another fluky tally go the Rangers' way, as Varlamov mishandled a weak Chris Drury shot from the point, bobbling the puck and losing it to Drury. The veteran forward, who can barely shoot the puck with much force, lofted it over his pad for a 2-0 Rangers lead 2:23 into the middle frame.

The Caps then pressed trailing by a pair of goals, but Lundqvist made a couple of nice saves, including one on Alexander Semin, but Washington couldn't get on the board.

With a couple of power plays late in the period, Washington poured on the shots later in the period, but couldn't beat the All-Star netminder and went into the dressing room down 2-0 despite outginning New York 19-5 in the middle frame.

After a slow start to the third, Alex Ovechkin finally got on the board in the series 2:13 into the period, taking the puck from a face off and rifling the puck past Derek Morris and Lundqvist to pull the Capitals within one.

Scott Gomez nearly scored to restore the two-goal lead on the next shift, but missed a good chance on Varlamov.

But the Caps started to turn up the heat down by just one, and they got a great chance to draw even when Sean Avery was whistled for hitting Milan Jurcina on an icing call and got tagged with a roughing call with 9:39 to play in regulation.

While Ovechkin got the best chance by hitting the post halfway through the extra-man advantage, the Rangers held the Caps off the board. Semin didn't help matters when he took a tripping penalty right after Avery was freed from the box, as time began to wind down on the Caps.

The Capitals killed off the penalty, but Lundqvist stopped another great Ovechkin chance with 5:13 left in the period.

However, Avery gave the Capitals another golden chance for the equalizer with 3:06 to play by taking a high sticking minor on Brian Pother in front of the Capitals' net, but the Caps couldn't cash in and ended up coming up short for their third one-goal loss of the series.

For the second straight year, the Capitals head into Game 5 at home down 3-1 in a playoff series, and will look to stave off elimination in front of the home crowd. Last year, Washington was able to win two straight facing elimination against Philadelphia before falling in overtime of Game 7, and now they will look to do one better this year.

New York, who took a 3-1 lead into New Jersey last year in the first round after losing Game 3 and winning Game 4 at the Garden, will look to close out the series in five games for the second straight year.

Despite Goal Drought, Ovechkin Still Looms Large

Just glancing at the stat sheet, Alex Ovechkin is in his biggest slump since January, as he's been held without a goal for four consecutive games, and has just one tally in Washington's last eight contests.

Only his stretch early in the season where he went nine straight games without a goal has Ovechkin not lit the lamp as he has in the last few games.

Of course, playoff hockey isn't all about what is on the stat sheets.

The star has contributed with four assists in three games (including a pair last Wednesday that were a couple of inches from being a pair of goals), and also showed off his hustle with a pair of strong defensive plays, including one to make up for a turnover at the blueline.

One thing that is playing in the back of the Rangers' mind is despite their 2-1 lead they carry into Game 4 tonight at Madison Square Garden is that Ovechkin hasn't even reached what he can do in a playoff series.

Last spring, Ovechkin won Game 1 with a spectacular individual effort against the Flyers, but then was mostly quiet until the later stages of the series, ending with nine points in seven games - with six of those coming in the final four games of the series.

And, Ovechkin hasn't been held without a goal in four straight games since Jan. 6-13, and then reeled off a pair of two-goal games over the next four.

He certainly has drawn the Rangers' attention, but with that extra attention is extra ice his teammates can take advantage of. Monday night, with New York paying a bit too much attention to No. 8, Alexander Semin was open to score a pair of goals - and create a couple of other chances.

With that in mind, before tonight's critical Game 4, the Rangers will look to use defense to try and keep the Caps from fully seizing momentum heading back to Washington for Friday's Game 5.

But with Ovechkin still without a goal, the Rangers are going to be wary of his prowess - or also risk allowing him to make his teammates better with the extra attention.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

We Interrupt This Series...

To bring you a quick recap of the rest of the Eastern Conference, and what might lie ahead for the next round of the playoffs.

In Raleigh, perhaps the wildest game of the playoffs so far took place, as the Hurricanes roared to a 3-0 lead over the visiting Devils, but New Jersey chipped away at the lead to even the score halfway through the third. Seemingly going to suffer a deflating loss and facing elimination Thursday night in Jersey, the 'Canes scored on a tip-in with :00.2 left in regulation, stunning Martin Brodeur and the Devils.

It's a stunning twist as it appeared the Devils would deal a fatal blow in erasing what had been a dominant Carolina effort for 39 minutes and grab a 3-1 lead in the series heading to Newark, but to lose in shocking fashion will certainly make this series a toss up.

With the Bruins appearing to be safely through - if they blow their 3-0 lead over a banged-up Canadiens now, it'd be even worse than the infamous too-many-men penalty in Game 7 in the 1978 Stanley Cup final in the minds of hockey fans in the Hub - the Capitals' next opponent would be the Devils if they can win the best-of-three. If the Hurricanes advance, the Capitals would face the Philadelphia-Pittsburgh winner.

If the Rangers managed to finish the upset of the Capitals, the Bruins would draw New York and leaving the winner of the other two series to play in the Eastern Conference semifinals regardless of the other outcomes.

As for that Penguins-Flyers series, it appears Washington could match up playing Pittsburgh in the next round, as the Pens held off the Flyers to grab a 3-1 lead heading back to the Steel City. While Daniel Carcillo gave Philadelphia some life late in the third period, the Flyers appear to be ready to hit the offseason barring a marked improvement in play.

Out West, Detroit spoiled the first Stanley Cup game in the state of Ohio (including a pair of seasons by the sad-sack Cleveland Barons), and moved closer to advancing with a 3-0 lead over the Blue Jackets.

Their next opponent will depend on the Sharks-Ducks series, as if San Jose can come back against Anaheim, Detroit's next opponent will be the Canucks and Roberto Luongo, who became the first team to advance with a dramatic overtime win over the St. Louis Blues. If the Ducks pull off the upset, Detroit draws the lowest-seeded Ducks, and the Canucks draw the Blackhawks-Flames winner.

Where Does This Series Stand?

Playoff series can be funny things.

Unless it's a sweep - see the current Boston-Montreal series as an example - there usually are a couple of turning points, where the two teams looking to advance change their game or successfully adapt, making a previously unbeatable-looking opponent look mortal, while a team out of sorts finally gets its act together.

This year's Eastern Conference quarterfinal took that transformation last night, as the Caps left some of the pundits who were marveling at the Rangers' first two wins and ready to put them in the next round a bit stunned as the first real dominant performance of the series was delivered by Washington in Game 3.

Truth is, the Rangers played a strong, disciplined game against the Capitals on the road last week, and were able to bury a couple of good breaks to grab a pair of one-goal victories.

Washington played a pair of decent games in D.C., but really didn't challenge Henrik Lundqvist much, shooting a lot from the perimeter and playing right into the All-Star goaltender's hands by giving him a lot of room to make saves when he needed them.

But all that came undone for New York Monday night, as the Rangers weren't disciplined, and the Capitals weren't timid and it certainly showed in the result.

So now, like any playoff series, the next game coming up looks even bigger than the one before.

Game 4 has a lot of meaning for both clubs, as it could potentially make or break either team before the teams head south again for Game 5.

New York was the plucky underdog in the series, having outworked the more talented Caps, but now the bloom appears to be off the rose, and now will have to get back to basics Wednesday. A team that thought they could feed off the rabid Madison Square Garden crowd was pretty badly outplayed in the opening minutes, and once Ryan Callahan's shot went off the inside post, the air and momentum left the Rangers bench - at least for the rest of the evening.

There was a reason the Rangers finished with the worst-goals for and goal differential of any playoff club. They play with a razor-thin margin for error, and giving a powerful team seven power plays even with a strong penalty kill just won't help your odds of survival. After last night's performance, New York is now better than just four of the other playoff teams in penalty kill with just 75 percent - and all those other teams have a combined zero wins in their respective series.

They have been much better in playing a system when John Tortorella came into town, but they played a game Monday more in line of what they were when Tom Renney was behind the bench, a bit disorganized and sloppy.

Switching to the other locker room, the Caps certainly got a bit of their swagger back with a strong performance. Washington has been inconsistent down the stretch, but when they're on, they are tough to stop even with a Vezina Trophy candidate in net. The Caps have thrown 110 shots on Lundqvist this series, but Monday night, Washington had their best chances of any of the series and buried enough to slowly drain the life out of the Garden and serve notice that they aren't going quietly.

However, it's only good for one win in the series. As the Caps learned last year, momentum can be fleeting.

Last season after winning Games 5 and 6 to erase a two-game deficit against Philadelphia, the Caps were the trendy pick to move on and complete an impressive comeback before the deciding seventh game, but that was little use when Washington lost a close game in overtime to watch Philadelphia skate on to face the Canadiens.

The Caps acknowledged as much in the postgame last night, telling reporters while it was good they got back to how they can play in the playoffs, it only is one win.

For the Capitals, a Game 4 win means coming home with all the momentum, as both times Washington has blown a 2-0 lead gained on the road in its history, after the home team lost Games 3 and 4, the series got more and more out of reach for the team that had the early lead. Should the Caps prevail Wednesday, the series boils down to a best-of-three, with them holding the momentum and regaining home-ice advantage.

And, unlike last year when they had a two-game lead, they're not quite on the ledge, as one bad game did them in against the Flyers. Should they grab Game 4, one loss in a best-of-three won't end their season, but just make it a bit more difficult.

New York also has its own history with 2-0 leads, having only lost just one game the past two years in the first rounds after jumping out to that lead, but that was in overtime in last year's series against the Devils. This was a much more dominant performance, and now after having given themselves a chance to pull off an upset, the Rangers now have to revert back to their simple, smart game to try and see if they can grind out another two wins.

Wednesday's game looms large for both teams, as the winner of Game 4 will certainly go a long way towards taking control of its destiny.