"I don't remember nothing." -- Alex Ovechkin's recollection of Game Five vs. Montreal in 2010.

There are plenty of stories being written today from all the different media outlets about the Washington Capitals playoff failures, especially when they've held a three games to one lead in their history, as they do currently over the New York Rangers.  I suppose, in its own way, this column is one of those stories too.

But, as Mark McGwire said famously while on the stand in front of Congress when asked about his use of performance enhancing drugs, I'm not here to talk about the past.

It's a reference point, sure.  The Capitals are 2-7 all-time in playoff series where they've held a three games to one lead.  Last season they became the first No. 1 seed to blow a 3-1 series lead.  Washington is 5-12 all-time at home in Game Fives.  We can go on and on about the stats and the history.  Because it's certainly there, for anyone that wants to look it up.

But the past is just not applicable in making a projection.  It makes for good narrative, because it's can be construed as "inner turmoil," a team fighting against itself and its history.  And we all know that struggle and controversy sells.

One can say the leaders of this team haven't learned how to close out a playoff series yet, that until they "put their foot on the neck" of their opponent, they'll be flawed and incomplete as leaders, as players, as a team.  I'm not sure I buy that, but I'm not sure I don't either. 

Psychology is a funny thing, especially when you're talking about the psychology of a group of young individuals from widely diverse backgrounds.

But to compare this team to the 94-95 team, or the 91-92 team, the 86-87 team, or even last year's team for that matter, is folly.

"I think they know what happened in Game Five [against Montreal] in the first ten minutes," coach Bruce Boudreau said after practice. "We've talked about it many times during the course of the year. But I'm not going to show them videotape of it or anything."

The only thing similar that this Capitals team has to all of those before them is the name on the front of the sweater.  Several weren't even born yet in 1987.  Some of the players remain from last year's collapse, but many faces have changed.  It's a different team.

Marcus Johansson.  Michal Neuvirth.  Matt Hendricks.  Scott Hannan.  Jason Arnott.  Marco Sturm.  None were involved in last season's debacle.

Sure, for long-time fans of the Caps, each of those playoff failures took away a little of their souls.  Each failure chipped away at their veneer, their armor, their self defense against heartache.  The losses made them more cynical, guarded, pessimistic.  "Choking Dogs", is how one popular former- Washington Post columnist used to refer to the Capitals come April.

And again, I understand the narrative.  The history is there so it has to be written about until a team comes along to "break the curse."  Fans feed into it as well, almost wearing it as a badge of courage when talking with their friends of other hockey teams.

But the players in the locker room don't care about the past, if they even are aware of it.  Sure, they remember last season, because it's fresh in their minds.  For the players that experienced it in person, and the others that watched it from a distance.

But I can promise you none of them, not even the oldest vets, could tell you about Ken Wregget's 3-0 shutout to close out the 1995 series against Pittsburgh.  None of them knew the devastation of the Pat LaFontaine goal.

That's all for the fans and media to re-live.  All today's team is concerned about is Brandon Dubinsky, Sean Avery and Henrik Lundqvist.  As it should be.

Yes. a win in Game Five would exorsize some demons for Caps fans and make them feel better about the team they root for, and about themselves for continuing to believe in that team even though the names, faces and personalities have changed over the course of 36 years, but the pain has remained the same.

But for the current team, it would give them a couple games off, a chance to rest and heal from a grueling, physical series.  And maybe, just maybe, they might learn something about themselves, too.

So, where shall we begin?

Ultimately, the only thing about this game that matters was the final score, with the Washington Capitals defeating the New York Rangers 4-3 more than halfway through the second overtime period to take a three games to one lead in their best-of-seven Eastern Conference Semi-final matchup.

But man, how they got there?  That will be the stuff of legends and lifetime memories.

In the second extra stanza, with legs getting heavy and shifts shortening, Jason Chimera collected a drop pass from Player of the Game Marcus Johansson at the blue line and flicked a shot toward veteran goalie Henrik Lundqvist that was blocked by defenseman Bryan McCabe but still made it to the top of the crease.

But as Lundqvist (49 saves) went to cover, Rangers forward Marian Gaborik tried to deflect the puck behind the net instead and wound up hitting Chimera right in the chest with it. Once the puck fell to the ice, the speedy winger jammed it home behind a prone Lundqvist to end the Capitals fifth longest game in their 37-year history.

That goal ended a remarkable comeback that was necessary because of a period of incredible futility and ineptitude, followed by an equally amazing period of hard work, perseverance and dedication.

After playing to a scoreless tie in the first period, which amounted to little more than a "feeling out" period for both teams, the Caps played their worst period of hockey since the days of the December losing streak in the second period, allowing three straight Rangers goals -- the last two coming seven seconds apart -- and looked for the world to be beaten, broken and defeated.

Washington was completely overwhelmed by the Rangers physicality in the frame, and by the time the period was over, the Caps looked like they were standing around waiting to be hit again.

But whomever gave the speech in the locker room during the second intermission certainly said all the right things.

With just 2:47 gone in the third period, Alexander Semin used great anticipation to intercept a poor clearing pass from Ryan McDonagh, fired on a surprised Henrik Lundqvist, and jammed home a loose puck the normally sure-handed goalie should have covered, triggering an epic third period comeback that included a pair of Marcus Johansson goals and forcing a stunned and tiring Rangers team to overtime.

It should be noted that three of the four Capitals goals came with the goal scorer having at least one foot in the paint, and the other was a deflection off the goal scorer's body camped in the crease.  Greasy goals.  Playoff goals.

Both teams had golden opportunities in the first extra frame, most notably Alex Ovechkin breaking in on Lundqvist alone, only to be stoned, and Marian Gaborik's wrister from the high slot that was calmly gloved by Michal Neuvirth (36 saves).

No, one overtime was not enough.  A comeback that stunning needed the drama of the second overtime period.

It shouldn't have come to that.  The Rangers had the Capitals right where they wanted them after the second period, on the scoreboard, on the ice and in the stands.  The raucous Madison Square Garden crowd was having a field day with Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, who earlier in the week had some pointed comments about the quality of the accommodation at the fabled arena, and some not-so-veiled jabs at the legions of Rangers fans, saying "It's not so loud in there."

Well, the chants of "Boo-dreau" and "Can You Hear Us?" were plenty loud enough, prompting Boudreau after the game to say that maybe he should have kept quiet about matters not directly related to the game.  But three third period goals silenced the MSG faithful, and after the dagger in the second overtime, you could hear the plaster dropping from the leaky ceiling in the dilapidated building that will be undergoing a $900 million face lift the next couple of years.

Momentum is a funny thing.  Had the Rangers held on to win and even this series, the Caps would have had to limp home and think about the nauseating way they allowed an inferior team to take control of things after achieving a two-games-to-none lead and then frittering it away.  Instead, after the ridiculous comeback-to-win-in-two-overtimes thriller, it's the Rangers that will brood for two days, mulling what could have, should have been.

The Capitals now have an opportunity to exorcise so many demons at once on Saturday, in front of their home crowd, on a night where the Verizon Center should tremble with excitement. 

Boudreau's message to his troops for Game Five should be simple: Take nothing for granted, earn everything, go to the net, work hard.  Just like in the third period of Game Four.



3. Marco Sturm.  Plus-1, six hits.  Thought he played his best game as a Capital.
2. Jason Chimera.  Game-winning goal.  His speed was a force in overtime when Marc Staal and Dan Girardi were noticeably gassed.
1. Marcus Johansson.  Two goals. Should have had an assist on Chimera's game-winner.  Plus-3.  Only drawback was in face off dot (6of-17).  But he was the best player on the ice last night.

CAPS NOTES:  Alex Ovechkin was minus-2 for the night, and was not particularly effective for long stretches of this game.  He had four shots on goal, but missed on four and had six blocked.

John Carlson was also minus-2, and was a spectator on the second and third Rangers goals.  But he fired the shot from the point that deflected on Johansson to tie the game and as poorly as he played in the second, that's how good he was in the third and overtime.

Alexander Semin led the Caps with seven shots on goal and really was a presence every time he had the puck.  Matt Bradley was credited for seven hits in just 10:59 to pace the Caps in that department.

The two teams combined for 120 hits and 92 shots on goal.


Posted by Dave Nichols | Wednesday, April 20, 2011 | , , , | 3 comments »

Tonight at 7:30 pm, Bruce Boudreau faces off against legions of New Yorkers defending their decrepit basketball arena.

Oh, I'm sorry.  There actually is a hockey game to be played.

The Washington Capitals lead the New York Rangers two games to one in their best-of-seven game series, but all anyone is talking about in the media -- both New York and D.C. -- is Boudreau's comments regarding fabled Madison Square Garden and the Rangers targeting Mike Green's head in Game Three.

Whatever Boudreau's motivation for addressing those two particular topics the other day, there's no denying that his team was badly outplayed in Game Three after playing so well in Game Two at Verizon Center.

Reports from this morning's pre-game skate from MSG brought news that Mike Knuble didn't participate, making the third straight day he hasn't skated with the team, which has to be considered a bad omen for his dressing tonight. 

Knuble has been a much bigger part of this offense since the strategy shift with the Caps relying on his presence around the net.  His absence would be a huge factor in this game.  Look for Eric Fehr to dress if Knuble can't go and for Jason Chimera to skate on the first line in Knuble's place.

Here are three more keys for the Caps tonight:

1)  The Caps need to get the jump on the Rangers.  MSG will be rocking tonight after Boudreau's comments, and an early goal would go a long way in settling things down in the arena.

2)  Someone needs to stand up to the Rangers agitators tonight.  Avery and Prust were on top of Neuvirth all of Game Three.  Better yet would be for someone to initiate the contact and get these guys off their game a little bit.  Avery loves to start stuff but doesn't finish.  Look for Matt Hendricks to get into someone's grill.

3)  Shots!  The Rangers top D pairing of Staal and Girardi have done a pretty good job keeping the shot total down against Henrik Lundqvist.  Ovechkin's only SOG in Game Three was his backhanded redirect for the goal.  Ovi needs to fling rubber at King Henry, the earlier the better.

Enjoy Game Four, Caps fans.

Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau went on record this morning after today's very optional practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex that Marc Staal's hit on Mike Green -- just before Alex Ovechkin's goal late in the second period of Sunday's 3-2 loss to the New York Rangers -- was a dirty hit and targeted Green's head, only three games returned from a lengthy absence due to concussion symptoms from another elbow blow, that one from Rangers rookie forward Derek Stepan.

Here's what the coach had to say about it: 
“It was to the side of the head and it was a dirty shot. I hope the league looks at it.  Let’s face it, I’m listening to all the experts last night on the [Raffi] Torres hit on [Brent] Seabrook, they’re all saying there’s no puck. It’s not a hockey play. The guy’s in a vulnerable position and he hits the head. That’s exactly what we’re trying to get out of the league.

And Staal comes in, there’s no puck, he takes his arm, he swings it at [Green’s] head, but it’s all forgotten because we score a goal to tie the game up. But it shouldn’t be forgotten and it wasn’t the only time they targeted Mike’s head.  They targeted it a few times. That’s what we want to get out of the game.”
There's a lot of rhetoric from coaches during the playoffs.  Boudreau's comments earlier this morning about MSG not being as loud as Verizon Center and being dilapidated probably deserved to be filed under that category.

But re-watch the video of Ovechkin's goal. 

First, Ovechkin is clearly and deliberately tripped around the blue line and a very clear expletive is captured. 

But at the 0:10 mark, Green distributed the puck, then Staal clearly hits Green in the head with his elbow.  Green seemed to sense the hit was coming but was unable to avoid the collision.  Green got up to join the goal celebration, but Boudreau is right in one thing: these are the hits the league needs to legislate out of the game.

Maybe Staal wasn't targeting Green's head on the hit and that's just where his elbow ended up.  But it sure looks to me like Staal purposefully stuck his elbow out to strike Green in the head.  You can hear Doc Emrick say "He's hurt," referring to Green, as Ovechkin beats Henrik Lundqvist for the goal.

Considering Green got up and continued to play in the game, if there's even a review of the play I'd be shocked of there was any punishment for this play.  But considering Green missed a quarter of the season with a head injury and a player on the Rangers -- the same team that caused the injury in the first place -- targeted his head in just Green's third game back, a review is completely warranted.

It's exactly plays like these that the league made a very public display of apparent serious concern about earlier this season.  Until these plays are treated the same way plays in which the player sustains injury are, consider the NHL's policy nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging bell.

Regardless of the league's review of this play, the Caps need to take matters into their own hands. 

The Rangers had the better of the physical play Sunday all around, including instigating contact on goalie Michal Neuvirth anytime they had the chance, with no repercussions whatsoever.  Sure, the refs "warned" the Rangers to avoid contacting the goalie, but there were no calls.  Why stop if there's no penalty for doing it?

If the referees aren't going to penalize the Rangers for these plays, then someone on the Caps needs to step up and protect his goalie, but do it smartly.  I'm not calling for vigilante justice for a Caps player to injure someone on the Rangers.  But you gotta fight fire with fire, and Lundqvist needs to be bumped once or twice early on Wednesday, just to let him know that Caps are there.

And Mike Green better keep his head up.  Because like I said, if there's no penalty, they aren't going to stop.

There were a lot of factors that contributed to the Washington Capitals losing to the New York Rangers, 3-2, on Sunday before a packed house at Madison Square Garden.

If you're into conspiracy theories, this one was a doozy.  The Capitals were whistled for eight infractions to the Rangers four, including a couple of "Where was the penalty there?" calls.  The game winning goal was scored while the teams skated four-on-four.  Still, a couple of the penalties were earned, including the cross-check by John Carlson that led to New York's only power play goal.

If you're a goalie controversy lover, you could argue that the first goal by the Rangers -- a power play goal -- that snuck past Michal Neuvirth's short side from a ridiculously sharp angle into an even more ridiculously small space STILL should never have happened, and if you look closely enough it might even appear that Neuvirth ducked away from the shot just a bit.  But you'd be reaching.

If you're a Rangers fan, well, you're certainly entitled to simply cite the stats that show the Blueshirts completely dominated their visitors.   The Rangers out-shot the Caps 35 to 25, out-hit them 41 to 29 and dominated in the face-off circle, winning 56 percent of the draws.  That's not just outplaying your opponent, that's a complete statistical shutdown.

But the biggest difference between the first two games of this series and the Game Three loss is that the Capitals allowed the Rangers to get to them.  The Rangers were the hungrier team, and on their ice, they played agitator, drawing the Caps out of their game plan and putting themselves out there for the taking.

The Rangers played "downhill" all game, forcing the Caps to play reactionary instead of pro-actionary.  New York was in Neuvirth's crease all day, instigating contact with the rookie and not only did that result in a ton of reactionary penalties called against, but also drew the Caps defensemen into the physical game instead of playing their positions.

Both penalties against Carlson, the second period cross-check and the double-roughing at 16:45 of the third -- when the game-winner was scored -- were prime examples of the Rangers getting under the skin of the young d-man and taking advantage of his exuberance.

Then, on the play the final tally came on, veteran defenseman Scott Hannan allowed Erik Christiansen to goad him into a shoving contest in the corner instead of tracking the play, allowing Brandon Dubinsky to carry the puck out of the corner and sneak back through the crease to backhand the tie-breaker past Neuvirth (32 saves).

It wasn't all bad for the Caps, as they showed tremendous resiliency, equalizing both time the Rangers took a one goal lead.  Alex Ovechkin redirected a Jason Arnott pass on the backhand past Henrik Lundqvist (23 saves) with exactly one minute left in the second period, and Mike Knuble cashed in a Nicklas Backstrom rebound for a power play goal with 5:12 left in the game.

The Caps even had a bit of fortune on their side, as an apparent New York goal was disallowed at the end of the second period after review when it was evident the puck did not fully cross the goal line before the clock read 0:00.

But that's all the fortune the Caps received during Game Three.  The rest was up to the Rangers making their own fortune.  There's plenty to complain about with the officials, but the bottom line is that the Caps allowed their opponent to dictate the play Sunday afternoon instead of being the aggressors that they were in the first two games of this series.

Which Caps team comes out for Game Four Wednesday night could very well define the rest of this series.

CAPS NOTES:  Referee Chris Rooney broke his leg when he got tangled up on the goal trying to get back into a play up-ice.  The game was delayed about 10 minutes while the injured ref made his way off the ice.  He will miss the rest of the playoffs.

Alexander Semin led the Capitals with six shot on goal.