Sunday, April 18, 2010

General Playoff Hockey Musings on Day 5 of the 2010 Playoffs

Wow, as we start day 5 of the 2010 NHL Playoffs, ALL seven series that have completed two games are tied 1 - 1 AND in the eighth match up the #7 seeded Nashville Predators lead the #2 seed Chicago Blackhawks. If that doesn't tell you just how different playoff hockey games are from regular season games then the only thing that will probably do it will be going to one yourself and seeing it live. I had the pleasure of attending the Caps vs. Canadiens games on Thursday and last night. Both were awesome games, of course being a Caps fan last night's was a lot more fun then Thursday night's. But before going through my musings about the two Caps games here's a few other musings I've been having about the 4 days of playoff games I've been watching on NHL Center Ice.

If two years ago you were looking at the Defensemen in the Caps System and assessing them would you have picked Sami Lepisto to have already played 34:44 TOI and an overall +/- of just -1 while playing against the Detroit Red Wings? Me neither, but if you've caught any of the Coyotes - Red Wings games, you will have seen why the 25 year old Finn was at one point a highly rated prospect in the Capitals system. That said, during his several call ups to the Caps before being traded to Phoenix in June, 2009, Lepisto never showed the full breadth of his capabilities. This season he played 66 games for Phoenix, finished the season at +14, with 11 points and 64 hits and is a solid member of their line-up. He was also a member of the 2010 Finnish Olympic Team that earned a Bronze Medal. All in all I'd say this former Capital (he did after all play a total of 14 games over the 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 seasons as a Cap_ is having a pretty good year. Here's hoping Sami continues to shine during today's game that will be on NBC at 3PM.

Speaking of the Phoenix - Detroit series, it's tied 1 game a piece, though I was surprised by the 7-4 score Detroit won by on Friday night. However, if you take away the final empty net goal and the two power play tallies that Detroit scored vs. Phoenix's failure to score on any of their four man advantages and it's a 4-4 tie. Of course that's not really the story. The story lines were two-fold: 1) Ilya Bryzgalov let in 6 goals and had a SV% of 0.841 while the Coyotes gave the Red Wings 39 shots on net; and 2) for the first 43:50 of the game the two teams played to an even 4-4 tie with the Coyotes staying with the Red Wings but failed to ever get ahead by more than one goal or "put the Red Wings away" despite Jimmy Howard only delivering a SV% of 0.8709. For the Coyotes to win the series they'll need to stay more disciplined and limit the Red Wings to fewer shots on goal and of course they'll need Ilya Bryzgalov to look more like Ilya Bryzgalov - basically they just need to make some minor adjustments and play a game a lot like they did in their 3-2 win over the Red Wings on Wednesday. Of course, the Red Wings have a few guys with a lot of Playoff experience looking to continue with the momentum they finished out Friday night's game with (3 straight unanswered goals.)

The last playoff series to get underway was the Chicago - Nashville on Friday evening in Chicago. Nashville won that contest 4 - 1, the Predators' final two goals were empty netters so in some way the game was a 2-1 loss by Chicago. The biggest difference between the two teams on Friday was goaltending. Both goalies played well, for Chicago Anti Niemi was 22 of 24 for a SV% of 0.9167; for Nashville, Rinne was 25 of 26 for a SV% of 0.9612. Both Nashville goals were scored by J.P. Dumont. Nashville's defense corps did a great job of making it very hard for Chicago to get any sort of flow going and made them work very hard to get scoring chances. As we've seen in the other 7 series, stating the very obvious, the next game is very important.

In the Boston/Buffalo series, the surprise to me was yesterday's 5-3 win by the Bruins, more specifically it was Boston's three (3) unanswered third period goals. The final stanza of Friday's game started with Buffalo up by a score of 3-2 and the Sabres failed to close things out and be the only team to be up 2-0 in a series. Ryan Miller delivered an only human 0.8667 SV% while at the other end Tuukka Rask delivered a 0.8966 SV% for Boston. The Bruins also out shot the Sabres 31-29 for the game. The second game was a far different story from the first on Thursday Evening when Miller turned back 38 of 39 (a 0.9744 SV%) to Rask's 0.9375 SV% and both teams had over 30 shots on goal. The bigger issue going forward might be the fact that Buffalo speedster Tomas Vanek left game two in the second period and did not return, if Vanek is unable to play in game 3, the Sabres will need to make some adjustments to mount a more aggressive offense. In game two, the Bruins seemed to generate more offense by having a more active blue line corps who joined the offense and mounted a four man attack quite regularly. What happens in game 3 should be interesting and telling when it comes to the next set of adjustments out of the minds of Lindy Ruff and Claude Julien.

Out in San Jose, the legion of Fin Fans are breathing a sigh of relief as the Avalanche - Sharks series moves to Denver tied 1-1 after the Avs opened it with a 2-1 win in the Shark Tank on Wednesday evening. The Western conference #1 seeded Sharks rebounded with a 6-5 win in overtime on Friday evening. In game 1 the story was the stellar play by Colorado netminder Craig Anderson. In game two the story was San Jose's ability to score a tying 5th goal while Evgeni Nabokov was on the bench for the extra skater with just 00:32 remaining in regulation to push the game into OT. In OT San Jose's Devin Stetoguchi scored the game winner at the 5:22 mark of the extra stanza to even the series at one game a piece as the teams headed to Denver for tonight's third game of the series. Another great series between two determined teams each challenging the other with the outcome long from being concluded.

In the New Jersey Turnpike series the Flyers and the Devils travelled South to Exit 3 from Exit 13 with their series tied 1 game a piece after the Devils evened it up with a 5-3 win on Friday evening at "The Rock." The number one star of game two of this series was none other than former Capital Dainius Zubrus, who scored the game winner with a goal he wasn't sure, nor did he care if it was his or Zach Parise's. In the end the 2nd seeded Devils were just more than happy to get the victory and head to Philly for this evening's game on an even par with the seventh seeded Flyers, as during game two they took an unusual nine (9) minor penalties and spent 11:03 skating short-handed which provided the Flyers two power play scores. Despite the elven minutes of short-handed play, the Devils still managed to out shoot the Flyers 33-29 for the game. Game 2 was a very different game than game 1 where the Flyers basically outplay the Devils in every facet of the game to open the series with a 2-1 victory on the road. What adjustments each team makes both in terms of game plan and execution will be interesting to see this evening.

In the Pittsburgh - Ottawa series, the Senators also opened up with a 5-4 victory on the road at the Igloo on Wednesday evening. During the opening game, the Senators blue line corps managed to contain both Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin pretty well while a lot of key Senators players including Spezza, Alfredsson, Neil and Fisher had good outing up front. In game two on Friday evening, the Penguins made several adjustments and they seemed to result in the Pens, especially Crosby, Malkin, Bill Guerin and Kris Letang having more time and space when the Penguins managed to come away with a 2-1 victory, despite a very solid 0.935 SV% by Senators net minder Brian Elliott. The series now moves to Ottawa this evening where the Sens Army will be enthusiastically cheering for their team to once again best the flightless birds from Steeltown.

Out West the closest series so far has been the #3 Vancouver Canucks vs. the #6 seed Los Angeles Kings. Both games so far have gone to Overtime and the series now moves to LA tied 1-1 with each game ending an identical 3-2 (OT) score sheet but a different team on top. Game 3 is tomorrow evening out in LA but it's been an interesting series so far and based on the start it promises to continue to be so.

The other series that's knotted at 1 game a piece and where both games have gone into overtime is of course the Eastern Conference #1 seeded Capital vs. the #8 seeded Canadiens.

Game 1 on Thursday was a 3-2 OT win by the Canadiens on the road in Washington. Game 1 was a goaltenders duel won by Canadiens netminder Jaroslav Halak with a 0.957 SV% as compared to Capitals goalie Jose Theodore who finished with a SV% of 0.921. game one was a hard fought affair, the Capitals outplayed and dominated the Canadiens for the first thirty minutes but Halak kept his team in it. Also during game one the Canadiens defense managed to keep Capitals stars in check, limiting Alexander Ovechkin to an unusual zero shots on goal. It was a hard game for Caps fans to feel good about, since it's unusual for the Caps to have a game with 47 shots on goal and get a better than 0.915SV% performance from their goalie and lose. In the end that's what happened though when at the 13:19 mark of OT, Canadiens Center Tomas Plekanec managed to get a fluttering puck past Theodore for the game winner to put Montreal up in the series 1-0.

Last night at Verizon Center, the Caps and the Habs again faced off for game two. The Caps were clearly outplaying the Canadiens however Caps goalie Jose Theodore was unable to stop the first two shots he faced and the Capitals were down by a score of 2-0 by the 7:58 mark of the first period. I was willing to give Theodore the benefit of the doubt on the Canadiens first goal - a wrister by Brian Gionta off a nice setup pass from Scott Gomez at the 1:00 mark that I felt Tom Poti gave too much space to the speedy tyke and former Jersey Devil. However, even though on the second goal, I once again would have likes to see either Jeff Schultz or Mike Green close the gap and challenge Andrei Kostitisyn on, Theodore had a clear bead on it all the way and he just misplayed it enabling Kostitsyn to put his wrister straight through his five hole. As regular readers know I am a huge fan of Theo: i) as a great person, ii) as the guy who wanted to come here when we got played and "dissed" by currently under-achieving Chicago netminder Christobel Huet, and iii) as a guy who when he's on is as good as any netminder in the NHL. However, last night, it clearly wasn't going to be his night and I sadly agreed with the change to Varlamov after Montreal scored their second goal.

So at that point last night, with 52 minutes left to play, the Capitals had "spotted" the Canadiens two goals and it was time for them to start to scratch and claw their way back into the game or risk finishing the evening heading to Montreal two games down. Given the way the Caps generally match-up with the Canadiens, like most of the other 18,000+ fans at Verizon Center, I was rooting for my team, but not overly optimistic. But it didn't take long for the Cardiac Caps to get me enthusiastically screaming my lungs out for the Caps. At the 10:21 mark Canadien Killer - Eric Fehr - scored a solid "hockey/playoff" goal setup by Tomas Fleischman. That enabled the Caps to go into the dressing room for the intermission trailing by just one goal.

The second period was not a kind one to the Capitals. They took two penalties, gave up two more goals to Andrei Kostitsyn who finished the game with 4 points, a hat trick and an assist, and looked like they were going to head into the dressing room for intermission trailing by three goals until at the 18:23 mark when Nicklas Backstrom fired a slap shot from the top of the left circle past Halak up high while both Ovechkin and Mike Knuble were in front of the net screening the Canadien goaltender, that meant through two periods it was Capitals 2 - Montreal 4. The only things Caps fans could say to each other at that point was a) the Caps had tightened up their defense and Semyon Varlamov had looked solid making the Canadiens have to work hard to score, and b) the Caps needed to make some adjustments, though it was unclear what would work and if there was still enough time to come back against a Canadiens team that was playing very well.

Throughout this season, the Capitals have become known as a "Third Period" team. Thankfully for the Caps and we Caps fan, last night, that reputation proved deserved. the Caps came out for the third period on the man advantage thanks to Mike Cammellari slashing and breaking John Carlson's stick basically in front of the referee at the 19:39 mark of the second stanza. The Caps didn't score on that power play but shortly there after, Aleander Ovechkin got what was probably his ugliest, grittiest goal of the season, and one of the more important, when at the 2:56 mark he was able to jam the puck through Halak's pads while holding off defenseman Roman Hamrlick and blue liner Jaroslav Spacek was occupied elsewhere with Nick Bacstrom to pull the Capitals within 1 goal. Then a little over seven (7) minutes later (the 9:47 mark), Ovechkin made what I felt was actually an even better play when he drove down the ice in deep and put the puck right on Backstrom's stick who was able to put his second goal of the evening cleanly past Halak to knot the game at 4-4. At this point, it was clear the 18,000+ sellout crowd of Capitals fans, all of us, we believed, the Capitals believed and we were just waiting for the next tally to confirm what "we knew." Alas, the next tally came from Canadien "trash-talking" center Tomas Plekanec on an excellent play set-up by Mike Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn and finished off by Plekanec to put Montreal up 5-4. Unlike earlier in the game though, for whatever reason, we Caps faithful in the stands still believed, and from the way they were playing, the Caps team on the ice did too. Then at the 18:39 mark, at even strength, while the first line was on the ice with Mike Green and rookie John Carlson on the blueline, the Caps took control and setup in the Canadiens zone. Carlson, the Team USA hero of the World Juniors, rose to the occassion, putting a nice slapshot on net through a screen once again set by a first line scrambling in close and ready for any rebound Halak might give up. However, no rebound was forthcoming as the shot resulted in Carlson's first playoff goal and knotting the game at 5-5, sending it to overtime.

Okay, I want to be up front, in the playoffs I have a love/hate relationship with Overtime. I love the excitment and suspense. I hate that anything can happen and when it odes it's usually not in the favor of the team I'm rooting for. However, if there has to be overtime for the Capitals to win, none could be scripted that much better than having Nicklas Backstrom end the game quickly with the third goal of his first playoff hat trick just 0:31 seconds into the extra stanza. Congrats Nick Backstrom! Congrats Capitals!

Hopefully now with the season even up, the Capitals will figure out how to tighten things up and come away with a less frenetic, more disciplined win in game three. It's clear in this series, like all the others, there's still a lot more hockey to be played in this first round of the 2010 playoffs.


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