And then there were four: Capitals fall just short in Game 7

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The Washington Capitals’ 2011-12 season is hockey’s answer to the adage “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”

If you compare their ultimate results to the expectations they carried into the season, then one could argue that losing 2-1 to the No. 1 seed New York Rangers in a tight seven-game series still remains a disappointment. Context changes matters, however, as the Capitals pleased many who wanted them to play a more conventional, defensive-minded style after years of being hockey’s answer to “The Greatest Show on Turf” era St. Louis Rams.

Ultimately, the takeaway is very much a subjective thing, but the most rigid, bottom-line result is that the Alex Ovechkin Capitals still haven’t played a single conference finals match.

What happened?

The Capitals bounced back from some big challenges, yet they ultimately ran out of rebound opportunities once Game 7 rolled around. Washington shook of a triple-OT loss and perhaps an even more brutal last-second OT loss in Game 5 to push the series to the limit, but the Capitals couldn’t beat the Rangers at their own game in the end.

Who takes the blame?

Assuming that you’re on board with Dale Hunter’s decision to convert the Capitals roster to a defense-first-second-and-last machine, Alexander Semin is the easy target as usual. He had a -2 rating in Game 7 (representing both Rangers goals, whether they were his fault or not) and only had one assist in the entire series. In fact, he sandwiched that assist between two four-game pointless streaks, so it’s unlikely that the pending free agent made himself much money in the playoffs.

Plus, he’s Alexander Semin – his middle name might as well be “scapegoat.”

What will they do about it?

That’s where things can get very interesting.

First things first, it’s no guarantee that Dale Hunter will return as head coach – and it might be his choice, which is pretty unusual in this profession. If he wants to come back, Capitals GM George McPhee needs to determine that he really wants to go in the direction Hunter took them.

If his answer is “Yes,” the Capitals can clean house to a staggering degree. Go-to scapegoats such as Semin, Mike Green and Dennis Wideman headline the list of guys whose futures are foggy. Meanwhile, it seems likely that Tomas Vokoun and Mike Knuble won’t be back while John Carlson’s restricted free agent negotiations should be interesting to watch.

Vokoun brings things to an interesting third factor (beyond coaching and free agent yes-or-nos) for the Caps: should they go after a veteran goalie? Braden Holtby had a fantastic playoff run but hasn’t ever carried an NHL workload. Meanwhile, Michal Neuvirth has been solid-but-unspectacular on the NHL level.

If the orders are to go all-defense all-the-time, then they might just want to invest in a goalie with a heftier resume.

That’s the interesting thing about the Cap; beyond Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom’s lengthy contracts, McPhee has an intriguing opportunity to make sweeping changes. So let’s leave that to you, then: what would you do with this odd but still seemingly promising group?

More

And then there were 15: Is Detroit’s dynasty on its last legs?

And then there were 14: Sharks come out flat in playoffs

And then there were 13: Powerhouse Pens fall flat

And then there were 12: Presidents’ Trophy-winning Canucks bounced in Round 1

And then there were 11: Another first-round exit for Blackhawks

And then there were 10: Bruins run out of Game 7 magic

And then there were nine: Senators out, but future’s bright

And then there were eight: Panthers go out swinging

And then there were seven: Blues swept out of Western Conference semifinal

And then there were six: So much for Nashville’s mid-season reload

And then there were five: New-look Flyers produce familiar results

Eddie Lack expects to be released from hospital on Monday night

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As scary as the situation was for Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack, the good news continues to pour in.

First, the Hurricanes provided an update that he had “full feeling in his extremities” while under observation at a hospital. This followed the promising sign that he was able to give a “thumbs up” gesture while being taken off the ice on a stretcher after the Hurricanes’ 4-3 overtime loss to the Detroit Red Wings.

The best news came late on Monday night, however, as Lack himself tweeted that he expects to head back home as early as this late evening/early morning:

That’s fantastic news. Video of that scary collision with Andreas Athanasiou can be seen in the video above this post’s headline.

Blues, Flames take care of business (Islanders … do not)

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For a while there, it seemed like the idle Boston Bruins and Toronto Maple Leafs would be Monday’s “winners.” That changed when the Carolina Hurricanes salvaged a standings point and the Tampa Bay Lightning stormed back to beat the Blackhawks.

Still, there were some teams who came through (beyond the Lightning) and those who fell flat, so let’s cover some of the results in short.

West teams get it done

Unlike their counterparts out East, West teams jockeying for position avoided “unforced errors” in losing to non-playoff teams.

The St. Louis Blues beat the Arizona Coyotes 4-1 while the Calgary Flames topped the Colorado Avalanche 4-2. Johnny Gaudreau generated his 200th point (and 201st) in Calgary’s win, while Alex Steen generated four assists. (Vladimir Tarasenko also enjoyed a three-point night.)

This keeps the Blues and Flames in position to advance. St. Louis is one point behind the Nashville Predators for third in the Central while the Flames are a point behind both the Sharks and Oilers for second and third in the Pacific (while remaining in shouting distance of the division title).

East teams stumble, some get over it

Again, the Lightning fought through hurdles to win and the Hurricanes managed that “charity point.”

Overall, East teams struggled. The New York Islanders fell to the Predators by a score of 3-1. Your mileage may vary on the Florida Panthers’ chances, especially after they fell 4-2 to the Buffalo Sabres.

Brian Gionta scored in his 1,000th game as Buffalo won, by the way.

Here’s what the race for the final spot in the East looks like after tonight:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Victor Hedman might just force his way into the Norris argument

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For quite some time this season, the Norris Trophy race felt a bit like “Brent Burns, Erik Karlsson and [insert token finalist].” As it turns out, Victor Hedman is making it a pretty interesting three-horse race.

With Burns and Karlsson idle on Monday, Hedman continued to go on the best offensive tear of his already-impressive career, contributing three assists to the Tampa Bay Lightning’s 5-4 overtime win against the Chicago Blackhawks.

As much credit as forwards Nikita Kucherov and Jonathan Drouin deserve in pushing Tampa Bay in Steven Stamkos‘ absence, Hedman has been an all-world blueliner for a Lightning team with a defense that isn’t really surrounding him with great talent.

He’s serving as a workhorse when his team needs him the most:

Now, when you look at the numbers, it’s probably fair to say that Hedman comes in third among the likely finalists in simple categories:

Brent Burns: 27 goals (!), 72 points in 75 games, +16 rating, 24:52 time-on-ice average

Erik Karlsson: 14 goals, 67 points in 74 games, +7, 26:53 minutes per game (fourth highest average in the NHL)

Victor Hedman: 15 goals, 65 points in 72 games, +2 rating, came into Monday with average of 24:15 minutes per game.

Looking at those breakdowns, you might wonder why someone wouldn’t just flippantly hand Hedman the “bronze medal” and a pat on the back … but things get more interesting if you ponder the all-around impact of those three.

Now, traditional-thinkers who slam risky defensemen for their mistakes often overstate such arguments. Both Burns and Karlsson tilt the ice in their teams’ favors, usually to profound degrees.

Still … Hedman locks opponents down to a truly elite degree and scores at a similar rate. Hedman could very well own the “two-way” argument; you could perhaps see his case most clearly when you compare his “HERO” chart to those of Burns and Karlsson, especially from the perspective of conceding shots.

Again, Burns remains the likely winner, and he would be a deserving one. You could make a solid Hart Trophy argument for Burns, in addition to tabbing him as the Norris frontrunner.

Even so, voters would be wise to take Hedman’s case seriously, especially as the Lightning continue their improbable playoff push.

Lightning storm back against Blackhawks, finish one point out of playoffs

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Who would have thought that the Tampa Bay Lightning would rally back from a 4-1 deficit tonight? Then again, who expected them to be so close to a playoff spot mere weeks ago, when they were sellers at the trade deadline?

The Lightning continue to show that they won’t just roll over and die, scoring four unanswered goals to beat the Chicago Blackhawks 5-4 in overtime on Monday.

While Jonathan Drouin was a catalyst for the second-period rally, it was an unlikely scorer who clinched the victory, as Yanni Gourde ended a thrilling run of 3-on-3 chances with the overtime-winner.

Really, it might have been fitting. Things looked glum when Tomas Jurco scored his first goal of the season against the Lightning, then the mood was totally flipped when Gourde’s second tally of 2016-17 grabbed a huge win.

With the Islanders losing to the Predators, the Hurricanes only managing a “loser point” against the Red Wings and the Bruins idle, Tampa Bay is a breath away from a playoff berth:

Final wild card: Bruins – 84 points in 75 games played

Lightning – 83 points in 75 GP
Islanders – 82 points in 75 GP
Hurricanes – 80 points in 74 GP

Yes, all of a sudden, a long-shot postseason run seems quite attainable.

Maybe the Lightning would prefer it if we kept counting them out, though?