Gut Punched – The Washington Capitals have suffered some excruciatingly painful overtime losses in the playoffs during the course of their checkered 37-year history. Monday’s Game 5 loss to the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinal series could be the most painful of the bunch, although the Caps will still have something to say about that.
The Capitals were less than half a minute away from a 2-1 victory that would have given them a 3-2 series lead with a Game 6 slated for Wednesday in Washington. But the game and the series took a late twist when Caps winger Joel Ward incurred a double-minor for inadvertently high-sticking New York winger Carl Hagelin with just under 22 seconds remaining in regulation.
New York’s Brad Richards scored a power-play goal on a goalmouth scramble with 6.6 seconds left in regulation to tie the score and send the game into overtime, with the Rangers still having 1:53 of power play time remaining.
With Ward still in the box early in the overtime session, Rangers center John Mitchell won an offensive zone draw back to blueliner Marc Staal. Staal fired a shot through a screen that found its way behind Washington goaltender Braden Holtby, who never saw it.
“It’s definitely a letdown,” says Ward. “I definitely let the squad down. I cost us a game with a terrible play. It happened pretty quick.
“It was off the face-off and was just trying to get to my point. It kind of seemed like [Hagelin] was running a pick on me, so I tried to get around the pick and I got my stick under him. That was it.”
In a span of 102 seconds, the Rangers scored two power play goals to go from despair to joy, and it is the Capitals who are now in need consecutive wins to salvage their season.
“Well, it was an accident,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter of the Ward penalty. “A high stick. That’s the breaks of hockey.”
There are those in the media and among the fan base who will hang the goat horns on Ward for this loss, but there is no truth whatsoever in that depiction. The Caps muffed several glorious chances to pad their precarious one-goal lead in the third, but couldn’t finish any of them.
Nicklas Backstrom hit the crossbar with a backhander on a breakaway. The Caps had a 3-on-1 and a 2-on-1 with their skilled players on the ice in the third, but the team’s big guns couldn’t light the lamp. They didn’t record as much as a shot on net on any of those odd-man opportunities, and odd-man chances have been rare in this series.
Washington was also unable to win a series of crucial face-offs late in the game; winning even one of those draws – particularly the one that followed Ward’s penalty – could have put a completely different paint job on this one. The Caps did not win a single draw over the game’s final 6:14, losing all seven face-offs during that stretch.
Those who would vilify Ward also conveniently forget that he drew two penalties on the night, including the one that led to Washington’s go-ahead power play goal from John Carlson at 4:20 of the third period.
And of course, it was Ward’s Game 7 overtime goal in the opening round against the Bruins that pushed the Caps into the second round against the Rangers.
“No one feels lower than him right now,” says Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “But at the same point, he is the guy who got us in the situation we are in right now in the second round. He is such a great team guy and he’s been great for us all season long. We’ve got to try and bail a guy like that out in that situation.”
Washington also had another power play chance just minutes after Carlson’s goal, but the sort of power play prosperity that leads to multiple power-play goals in the same game has long deserted the Capitals. It has been more than three years and 36 playoff games since the Caps scored more than one power play goal in the same post-season contest.
Including tonight, the Capitals have been victimized by multiple power-play goals against four times in that 36-game span.
Ward’s penalty was a fluke; his stick rode up into Hagelin’s face the two were trying to gain position on a face-off in the Washington end. Had some of Ward’s teammates executed earlier in the third, no one would be discussing it at all. And if the Caps had merely won the ensuing face-off after the penalty, they’d likely be safely home with a 3-2 series lead right now.
If Washington is ultimately unable to move onto the third round of the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, then certainly Monday’s Game 5 setback on Broadway will assume a lofty perch in the pantheon of painful postseason punches to the gut. But if the Capitals can put together one more modest two-game winning streak here starting with Wednesday’s Game 6 at Verizon Center, they’ll relegate Monday’s loss to just another playoff speed bump.
It’s all up to them.
“It’s tough,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble, “when you’re so close to winning the game and then all of a sudden you’re on your heels and you end up losing.
“The thing is we’re going home. We’ve got a big home game Wednesday and a chance to try and bring a seventh game back here again.”
The Caps rebounded from a difficult Game 3 loss in triple-overtime to win Game 4, and they believe they can also rally from Monday’s stunning setback.
“We’ve got to have the same mentality as last time,” says Brouwer. “The series isn’t over. We know we’ve got a good hockey club in here. We know we have a confident hockey club in here, especially going home to a good building. I’m assuming it’s going to be rocking on Wednesday.”
Unlikely Scenario – Tonight’s game marked the first time all season the Caps had been victimized by power-play goals on both ends of a double-minor penalty.
The Caps even successfully killed off a triple-minor penalty to defenseman John Erskine in a January game at Montreal.
In New York’s first three manpower advantages of the game on Monday, the Caps held the Rangers without a single shot on net in six minutes worth of extra-man time.
Double-Edged Sword – Washington blocked 26 shots in Saturday’s 3-2 Game 4 victory. And the Caps followed up with 25 more shot blocks in tonight’s game.
Ironically, Holtby was unable to see Staal’s game-winner because of his teammates vying to block the shot in front of him.
Start Me Up – Washington rode a swift start to victory in Game 4, outshooting the Rangers by a wide margin of 14-3 and getting the game’s first goal. The Caps never trailed, taking a 3-2 win to even the series at 2-2.
Tonight, the Rangers turned the tables on the Caps in that regard. New York outshot Washington 17-4 in the first period, took a total of 28 shots to the Capitals’ 12, outhit the Caps 15-8 and won nine of the 15 face-offs (60%).
New York maintained a significant territorial advantage in the second, taking 27 shots to Washington’s 10. The Rangers took 23 shots toward the net to just 13 for the Capitals after the start of the third period.
By night’s end, the Rangers had a 78-35 lead in shots attempted, and a 33-11 edge in even-strength shots on goal.
“They came out pretty hard,” says Hunter of the Rangers. “But we regrouped and came back. They were throwing pucks from the corners and stuff, just throwing everything at the net. Holtby had to be strong. That’s why he had lots of shots because they were shooting from everywhere. He was strong again tonight.”
Powerful Stuff – Carlson’s power play goal was Washington’s sixth of the playoffs, and it was seconds away from becoming the Capitals’ fifth game-winning power-play goal.
Working Overtime – The Caps have played six overtime games in their 12 postseason contests this spring, going 2-4 in games decided beyond the first 60 minutes. Washington is now 20-27 all-time in playoff overtime games.
In each of its previous three overtime losses this spring, Washington has rebounded with a win in its next game.
By The Numbers – Only seven of Washington’s 18 skaters managed to get a shot through to Lundqvist in Monday’s game. Four players – Brooks Laich (five), Jason Chimera (four), Alexander Semin (three) and Carlson (three) combined to account for 15 of Washington’s 18 shots on goal for the night … The Capitals were outhit 10-0 after the start of the third period, and 29-14 on the night … The Caps are now 0-5 this spring in games in which they surrender the contest’s first goal … Mike Green paced the Caps with 24:47 in ice time … Carlson and Karl Alzner led Washington with four blocked shots each … Richards had nine shot tries in the game. The only one he got on net was the one that tied the game in the waning seconds. He had five shots blocked and he missed three times.