After taking a 3-1 lead in their second round series against the Rangers, the Caps lost game six 4-3 in front of their home fans on Sunday night and now must play in another excruciating game seven on Wednesday.
Despite the Caps’ history of choking in the playoffs– they have blown 3-1 series leads four times, the most in NHL history– Alex Ovechkin believes this Caps team is different. Despite winning only three of their last 14 series-clinching games, he believes they can return to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998. And he’s not considering any other friggin’ result.
For about an hour on Friday night, Curtis Glencrosswas a playoff hero. His breakaway goal with 10:54 left in the third period looked like it was going to send the Capitals to the Eastern Conference Final for the first time in 17 years.
The Rangers, however, tied the game late. In overtime, Glencross attempted a cross-ice pass to spring Brooks Laich. It was a bad one. The trade deadline acquisition stopped and flipped the puck lazily into the hands of Rangers forward Jesper Fast. Within a few seconds, the game was over. Glencross fell to his knees as the Rangers celebrated their comeback victory.
Speaking to the media after the game, Glencross was shellshocked — and perhaps headed for a benching. But instead, he will play tonight, skating once more with Laich and Tom Wilson on the fourth line as the Caps look to close out the series in game six at Verizon Center.
For the Rangers, the winners of the Presidents’ Trophy this year, a few inches here and there had put them on the verge being eliminated from the postseason in early May. In their last eight periods coming into Friday’s game, they had scored two goals. After every loss to the Capitals, three of them heading into game five, they insisted they were about to break through. Every night, the Rangers showered Capitals goalie Braden Holtby with pucks. Though his teammates prevented many of those shots from reaching him, most made it through towards the net. Holtby, as he has all season, stopped nearly all of them.
In a series with some of the most spectacular goals imaginable, Holtby, 25 and a restricted free agent at the end of season, has been Washington’s most remarkable player. In the regular season, Capitals coach Barry Trotz played him more than any other goalie in the league, 73 games total. Through game four of this round, he had given up just 15 goals in 10 postseason games. His 1.48 goals against average and .950 save percentage topped all goalies still playing in the postseason.
But the Rangers offense, which netted 248 goals in the regular season, never disappeared. As their head coach Alain Vigneault reiterated after every game, they were knocking on the door. In the opening three games of the series, they put 94 shots on net. They added another 35 the first 58 minutes of game five. But their chances were running into the league’s hottest goalie, a guy who had been benched for weeks on end just a year ago.
But finally, 101 seconds before New York’s season was set to expire, Chris Kreider beat Holtby on the Rangers’ 36th shot of the night, a one-timer from the near circle.
“I just didn’t see it,” Holtby told reporters after the game.
One year ago, Evgeny Kuznetsov came to North America. On a spring morning, he took the ice for the first time in a Washington uniform after signing a two-year entry level contract. Save for Capitals coaches, Kuznetsov was alone. Still, cameras followed him incessantly down the ice.
Soon after, RMNB spoke to Kuznetsov for the first time. Last Sunday, we did it again. There was a fair bit to discuss. For Kuznetsov, it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic shift in just one season. So far, he’s been a fourth liner, a second-line second, a healthy scratch, and finally, a playoff hero. Off the ice, Kuznetsov endeared himself to his teammates and became a media darling.
Naturally, we had both asinine and serious questions for Kuzy. He happily obliged.
Over the past season, we’ve seen Marcus Johansson go from a talented set-up man into the Caps third leading goal scorer. Andre Burakovsky has gone from an 19-year-old babyfaced rookie into, for a while, the team’s top-line right wing. In the past two weeks, those two have added more facets to their game. In the 2015 playoffs, Johansson and Burakovsky have become physical forces on the ice. But instead of going for needless checks that only put them out of position as so many players do, Marcus and Andre pick their spots, using their bodies to bump opponents off the puck or maintain possession.
“You never want to approach a game looking for hits,” Brooks Orpik, who was third in the league in that stat during the regular season, told me Wednesday. “If you do that you’re gonna be out of position.”
“We can’t try to be a skill team all the time,” he added. “If you are a big team, you have to use that to your advantage.”
Once an afterthought in the Filip Forsberg deal, Michael Latta has since carved for himself a full-time roster spot in Washington. An underrated, rugged center, Latta’s adept at killing penalties, forechecking, punching faces, and being literal sandpaper on the ice. Off the ice, he’s something of a social media all-star and a player to whom fans have really gravitated.
Latta, who almost has 20k Twitter followers, has co-created new nicknames for Evgeny Kuznetsov, Mike Green, and Nicklas Backstrom. He’s live-tweeted what it’s like to be roommates with Tom Wilson and Andre Burakovsky. He was the single funniest moment of EPIX’s Road To The Winter Classic. He was one of the first players to send out a well wish to the #Pray4Bman hashtag.
Simply put, Latta is a delight. On Sunday, I stuck a camera in his face after a bag skate at KCI. This turned out to be a good idea.
Since ostensibly hurting his right shoulder over two weeks ago, Eric Fehr has only taken to the ice delicately, keeping his legs fresh while engaging in light movements with his upper body. Today, he joined practice for the first time since getting injured by Kyle Okposo of the New York Islanders, participating in a noontime optional skate. Capitals head coach Barry Trotz has perpetually and apocryphally insisted Fehr’s return could be imminent since the aliment occurred, but F-16 reported Tuesday that he was unsure when he would rejoin to the lineup.
“I don’t have any idea about any of those things,” he told reporters.
When it comes to handing out cool nicknames to their teammates, we think hockey players are second to none. The current crop of Capitals are certainly doing their fair share of creative nicknaming. When the NHL mic’d up Tom Wilson for a first round game against the Islanders, we learned that Alex Ovechkin’s moniker is Destroyer – or at least that’s what Willy Baby calls him. And who can forget the “Big Cheese” Joel Ward; I mean, how can it possibly get any cooler than Big Cheese!?
In my opinion, it just did, courtesy of the two Caps players, who, as The Washington Post recently discovered, developed a strong and somewhat surprising friendship during the course of this season: Russian rookie Evgeny Kuznetsov and grizzled American veteran Brooks Orpik.
At 12:40 p.m. on Saturday, Jay Beagle won the opening faceoff of game two of Metropolitan Division Final against the New York Rangers. Instead of controlling the puck, however, the Capitals allowed the Rangers to set up for a rush out their defensive zone. As the Rangers took the puck up the ice, Washington’s top forward and defensive lines jumped on the ice. Brooks Orpik didn’t do so fast enough. Jesper Fast fed the puck to Chris Kreider in front. Thirty-eight seconds into the game, Washington was down one-nil. By the end of the first period, New York had a two-goal lead. The Caps had been outshot 15-4, completely outmatched for the first 20 minutes of play.
“I think we had a great start,” defenseman Marc Staal told reporters at the team hotel on Sunday.
But instead of sitting on their lead as they did in game two, the Rangers only plan to press more on Monday.
“It’s one thing to stay patient,” Staal said. “I think it’s another thing to stay aggressive.”
Alex Ovechkin has never made it past the second round of the playoffs. It’s a trite fact, but unavoidable. He’s been in the NHL since 2005, with his window as a primary goal-scorer closing. In 10 years, he has yet to win a Stanley Cup. Some core players around him, like Mike Green, are likely to leave this summer or within the next few years. This may be Ovechkin’s best chance to win a Cup as the undisputed leader of the Washington Capitals. Ovechkin seems to know that. In this year’s Division Final against the Rangers, DC’s captain has put on an astonishing display of talent and dedication, nearly winning games for the Capitals off his play alone. On Saturday, he came up short, but it was another immortal individual performance.
“He’s a force,” coach Barry Trotz said. “No question.”
Midway through the third period, Washington was down 3-1, having just given up a crushing goal to Rangers forward Derick Brassard. Just 90 seconds before Rangers fans were to begin their eight-minute mark “Ovi Sucks! Ovi Sucks! Ovi Sucks!” onslaught, Ovechkin bumbled down the ice with three Rangers on him. He knifed straight through Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, New York’s top defenders, as the two hopelessly whacked at Ovi. Falling to his knees, he let off a perfectly placed wrist shot that went top shelf on Henrik Lundqvist. It was a goal that was nearly impossible to imagine another player in the NHL scoring. It was utter brilliance, under immense pressure, on a huge stage. Save for the cheers of Capitals players, MSG fell silent.