Capitals’ Game 2 OT loss continues playoff torment

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If you wanted a script for what the Washington Capitals playoff experience is like their 5-4 overtime loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Sunday was perhaps the most perfect example that could have ever been put on the ice.

Matt Calvert‘s game-winning goal at the 12:22 mark over the overtime period lifted the Blue Jackets to the win and sent the Capitals to their second consecutive overtime loss to open the series, putting them in a 2-0 hole as it shifts to Columbus on Tuesday night.

Honestly, it might have been the quintessential Capitals playoff game because it had a little bit of everything that has happened to this team over the better part of the past … well … let us just say their entire existence.

You wanted to see more from Alex Ovechkin? Perfect!

He was great, scoring two goals and finishing with 17 total shot attempts, including 10 on net. He played 30 minutes, was everywhere, and helped the Capitals own a 29-13 total shot attempts advantage when he was on the ice (via hockeystats.ca). Not much else one player can do, and it was just the sort of effort you want to see from your best player in a playoff game.

Epecially one in which your team is trailing in the series.

But it was not just him that showed up for the Capitals.

Despite the result on the scoreboard they carried the play, especially during 5-on-5 play, for most of the night and outshot Columbus by a 58-30 margin, only to be shut down by another spectacular goaltending performance, this time by Sergei Bobrovsky playing the role of Jaroslav Halak. It was not just the fact that Bobrovsky had to face 58 shots. He had to face quality shots and all night was making highlight reel saves. For a goalie that entered the playoffs with questions about his recent playoff experiences he did quite a bit to quiet those concerns.

That sort of shot disparity is usually — usually! — enough to win a playoff game. According to the hockey-reference database this was only the 12th playoff game where a team had at least 55 shots on goal and allowed 30 or less.

The previous 11 teams were 9-2 in those games. Seven of those games went to overtime , where the team with the shot advantage was 6-1.

Once again, there was a lot here that should have resulted in a win, especially with the way they were able to open the game.

For the second game in a row they built up a two-goal lead (on Sunday they actually had two different two goal leads — 2-0 and 3-1) and seemed to have Columbus on the ropes.

In terms of the way they actually played they did enough to get a win and even the series.

So what went wrong to result in another soul-crushing defeat?

Well, let’s start with discipline.

For the second game in a row they took some really poorly timed penalties and could not stay out of the penalty box, resulting in Columbus scoring two more huge power play goals. For the second game in a row Tom Wilson — a regular on the Capitals’ penalty kill — was sitting in the box for one of those Columbus power play goals.

To be fair the Blue Jackets had their own lapses here, especially in the final six minutes of regulation. Maybe it all evened out in the end. But you can not take those penalties game after game.

Then there is goaltending.

Nothing can turn completely swing a playoff game or a series the way goaltending can. A hot goalie can steal one. A cold goalie can lose one. On Sunday we kind of saw both.

While Bobrovsky was making 54 saves (many of them spectacular), Phillipp Grubauer was getting benched after the second period for giving up eight goals in his first seven periods of hockey in the series, posting a dismal .836 save percentage.

That all happened after he took over the No. 1 job from Braden Holtby entering the series.

Holtby, of course, is a goalie that won the Vezina Trophy two years ago, was a finalist a season ago, and has the second best postseason save percentage in NHL history (minimum 50 games played). You can look at his down year and argue that Grubauer was the hot hand coming into the series if you wanted to, but he’s still Braden Holtby. He’s still one of the best goalies in the league. And he started the series on the bench while the guy that replaced him struggled. A lot.

Put all of that together and you have where the series is sitting now.

Washington has to now go on the road for two games and is in a position where it has to win four out of the next five games in order to avoid what would be yet another disappointing, and all too premature postseason exit.

Given the way the Capitals played the first two games of the series there is every reason to believe they are perfectly capable of doing that.

But given the way they played those first two games there is every reason to believe they should have won at least one of those games.

That is the beauty — or agony, depending on your perspective — of playoff hockey. It doesn’t care about who deserves anything. Things happen. Sometimes weird things. Frustrating things. Nobody knows that more than the Washington Capitals.

Perhaps no game encapsulated all of that more than Game 2 on Sunday.

Welcome to the Washington Capitals playoff experience. It is quite the ride.

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Adam Gretz is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @AGretz.

One brave move could improve Capitals

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“Reliably good” might not be the sexiest descriptor in sports, but when an NHL team finds a goalie who delivers such results, they should count their lucky stars. Few goalies beyond Henrik Lundqvist have fit that bill quite like Braden Holtby over recent years.

Still, just about every goalie goes through a crisis of confidence; even Lundqvist hasn’t been immune to questions surrounding certain stretches of play. Holtby was already struggling this season – he came into last night’s game with exactly a 3.00 GAA, a number startling by both its symmetry and its worrisome nature – and only saw it worsen, allowing three goals in just two periods in Washington’s loss to Anaheim.

It can’t be good to see your team literally double the opposition in shots on goal, yet lose 4-0.

The good news, but also the challenge, is that the Capitals have another option in net, and Philipp Grubauer appears to be a pretty excellent one in that. Rather than fighting it, the Caps should give him a real chance to prove himself, and possibly profit off of that ambition.

He didn’t have to do much against the Ducks on Tuesday, stopping all eight shots in relief of Holtby, but that appearance served as a reminder that he’s been quite effective when called upon. That goes for 2017-18 (a sparkling .922 save percentage in 25 appearances) and his career in general (a slightly better .923 save percentage in 91 games). Holtby, meanwhile, saw his 2017-18 save percentage dip to a worrying .907.

As Isabelle Khurshudyan of the Washington Post reports, Capitals head coach Barry Trotz & Co. seem to know that they might need to pivot, at least for a while.

“I think just like anything, we’ll make that decision based on that he’s played a lot of games and won a lot of games,” Trotz said. “So because he’s No. 1 doesn’t mean you don’t go with Grubi for a bit just so [Holtby] can settle his game. We’ll sit down with [goaltending coach Scott Murray] just to see what the best thing for the long haul is.”

So, that’s a bit of hedging, which is totally fair. Allow me to lay out a few reasons why the Capitals should embrace Grubauer as a real threat to Holtby, even if it’s only for the next month or so.

Motivation plus freshness

There’s little doubt that Braden Holtby is a highly motivated athlete.

Since 2014-15, Holtby leads all goalies in games played (250), wins (160), and shutouts (21) while maintaining an excellent .920 save percentage. Still, you wonder if that workload might be weighing on him a bit. That’s especially plausible after the last two seasons, when he might have blamed himself at least in part for the Capitals falling heartbreakingly short of a Stanley Cup despite dominant regular seasons.

While Holtby’s $6.1 million cap hit runs through 2019-20, Grubauer’s $1.5M expires after this season, making him a pending RFA.

At 26, Grubauer must be chomping at the bit to get an extended opportunity to show what he can do … and yes, earn himself some money.

If the Capitals are worried about a “Here we go again” mentality, would a goalie who’s only enjoyed 95 games played spread out over six seasons give them a fresh outlook? From a scouting perspective, there’d likely be a lot more “tape” on a guy like Holtby (355 regular season games, 59 playoff appearances) than Grubauer.

Painful firsthand experiences

If nothing else, the Caps have seen how far a team can go while “riding the hot hand.”

Matt Murray is an immediate example, and he might stand as a template for how the Caps could handle things if Grubauer managed to take Washington far. Maybe they’d roll with Holtby and Grubauer for a bit before making a move? Murray helped the Penguins beat the Caps during the 2016 postseason, while injuries and a red-hot Marc-Andre Fleury flipped the script.

The most extreme example goes to the days before Holtby and Trotz.

During the 2010 postseason, the Canadiens went on an unlikely run with Jaroslav Halak, who only allowed three goals during the final three games of that memorable first-round series despite facing a ridiculous 134 shots on goal.

Despite that run, the Habs then had the courage to choose Carey Price over Halak during the ensuing off-season. These examples could show Washington that there’d be multiple routes if they give Grubauer an extended look, rather than giving him a very short leash.

What could have been?

Look, Holtby’s earned the right to be “the guy” in Washington’s net.

That said, the Capitals are already plagued by “What if?” questions. The Capitals won the last two Presidents Trophies, and also snagged one in 2009-10, yet they still lack a Stanley Cup ring. This franchise needs to turn over every stone to try to get Alex Ovechkin that elusive ring, even if it means ruffling some feathers.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Trades fantasy hockey owners should root for

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Trades can really liven things up for a sport, so here’s hoping that the intriguing Michael Grabner to Devils move is the catalyst for a memorable stretch of swaps.

While there’s always the risk that a player will struggle to get acclimated to a new city and new teammates, trades can also provide a boost in fantasy hockey. As we wait for more deals to trickle in, it might be fun to picture changes of scenery. Here are some moves fantasy owners should root for.

[More on the Grabner trade.]

Elephants trotting around the room

Look, asking the Senators to trade Erik Karlsson is asking a lot.

It could be quite a late-season boon for owners who’ve been burned a bit by a season that’s not up to his honestly ridiculous standards. Complaining about a defenseman generating 42 points in 55 games is silly, but considering that Karlsson often goes in the first or second round, and fantasy sports are kind of silly by nature, well …

Anyway, a move to a contender could really help him. Maybe he’d enjoy short-term puck luck (his shooting percentage this season is 3.4 percent, half of his career average of 6.8). Considering his puck dispersal skills, setting up teammates who are likely more skilled and more motivated at this point in the season could really be electric.

Max Pacioretty also stands as interesting.

With a 7.7 shooting percentage, “Patches” is also lacking when it comes to lucky bounces. More than that, it has to be a drain on him to lose so often, particularly in a hockey-obsessed market like Montreal. Being “one of the guys” on a contender could really do him good.

Also, it’s been noted, yet it must be said: Pacioretty’s really never played with a great center. Imagine what he could accomplish with a legitimate No. 1? With his contract expiring after 2018-19, the motivation should be there, too.

Some others worth noting in this category:

  • Evander Kane has dealt with injuries and the frustrating knowledge that he’s never suited up in a playoff game in his career. With an expiring contract at age 26, you could argue that Kane has the most on the line of just about any of the most realistic trade targets in the NHL.
  • On the other end of the spectrum, yet with comparable sniping skills, you have Rick Nash. Much like Pacioretty, Nash is getting his goals now after a prolonged slump. While Kane has never tasted playoff play, Nash surely would like to show that he’s more “clutch” than his critics believe.
  • Mike Green got roasted a bit in this PHT roundtable, but that’s based on real-life play. From a fantasy perspective, Green could be fascinating. That said, he plays a huge role in Detroit, and might actually see a downgrade if traded. So maybe he’s a coin flip?
  • Ryan McDonagh and Oliver Ekman-Larsson are both defensemen who will likely be affected by what happens with Karlsson, as they do too see contracts expire after 2018-19. McDonagh seems more likely to move than OEL, yet both could really thrive on better/more driven teams down the stretch.

[Dion Phaneuf: better in fantasy than reality.]

Lightning round

OK, now onto a handful of names that might not come up much/at all, but would be a lot of fun.

  • Goalies with more fuel in the tank: Sorry, Antti Niemi, but there are better options out there for goalie rentals, even with Petr Mrazek off the market. The Coyotes might want to keep Antti Raanta around, but it would be intriguing to see what he could do for, say, the Hurricanes. Raanta’s save percentage is up to .922 this season. Since 2014-15, Raanta is tied with Carey Price and Corey Crawford for the NHL’s best save percentage at .923.

Raanta would be the gem in my eyes. Still, there are some other interesting considerations. Would the Sabres trade sneaky-good Robin Lehner? Could Jaroslav Halak help someone if the Islanders decided they’ve had enough?

  • I’ve stated that the Coyotes would likely lose if they traded Max Domi. Domi’s fantasy owners and new team could enjoy modest-to-significant gains, however.
  • This is more tangential: Jeff Carter might be nearing a return. With that in mind, the Kings might actually be a more beneficial landing pad for a player than maybe they’d seem. It sounds like they’re happy to get Tobias Rieder, though.
  • As always, root for the Oilers to trade skilled players (note: they’re saying they are leaning toward tweaks this time, for what it’s worth). You may very well see that player burn them for making such a move, possibly right away.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

The Buzzer: Hot Islanders goalies, Jets take off

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Players of the Night

  • Much like Jaroslav Halak with his 50-save shutout last night, Thomas Greiss stole the show – and a shutout – for the New York Islanders, stopping all 45 of the Hurricanes’ shots on Friday. He probably deserves the top spot; you can read about his performance here.
  • Blake Wheeler and Mark Scheifele helped the Jets dominate the Avalanche 6-1. Wheeler collected two goals and one assist, while Scheifele generated three assists. Since returning from an injury, Scheifele is on a three-game point streak, collecting two goals and five helpers. Wheeler continued to produce without Scheifele, but like peanut butter and chocolate, they’re even better together.

Note: if you go after them, you may have to answer to Dustin Byfuglien. That’d probably bad news for you.

Highlights of the Night

This was Patrik Laine‘s 16th power-play goal of 2017-18. Looks like his office covers a lot of ground/ice:

Sean Couturier continues to be a revelation as a top-line center for the Philadelphia Flyers, scoring the overtime-winner against the Blue Jackets:

Columbus carried a substantial shot advantage over Philly, but Sergei Bobrovsky made some great stops:

Factoids

Again, the Islanders’ shutouts are especially impressive because the defense has not been impressive.

Quite a start to Patrik Laine’s career.

Select company for John Klingberg.

Jay Bouwmeester: 1,100 games, countless surprised facial expressions.

Scores

Flyers 2, Blue Jackets 1 (OT)
Islanders 3, Hurricanes 0
Jets 6, Avalanche 1
Stars 2, Blues 1

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.

Islanders grab back-to-back, unlikely shutouts

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As the NHL’s worst team when it comes to stats like shots allowed and high-danger chances given up, it would be pretty silly to pin all of the New York Islanders’ woes on their goalies.

Still, there’s a cut-off where you have to expect a certain level of competence even behind a faulty defense. Jaroslav Halak and especially Thomas Greiss have been part of the problem for much of 2017-18, but with the fan angst at a fever pitch to the point of generating money to buy “Snow Must Go” billboards, the Isles’ two goalies are doing the former-backup-turned-GM some serious favors.

On Thursday, the Islanders were bombarded with 50 shots on goal, yet Halak pitched a shutout against the New York Rangers on the way to a 3-0 win.

Tonight, Islanders coach Doug Weight gambled on putting Greiss in net instead of “riding the hot hand,” and instead rode the hot duo. The Islanders beat the Carolina Hurricanes 3-0 as well, even though Carolina nearly doubled them in shots on goal (45-23).

So, in a back-to-back set against Metropolitan Division rivals also fighting desperately for playoff positioning – albeit one also eyeing a possible rebuild at the same time – the Islanders suffered a 95-58 shots on goal disparity, yet won by a combined score of 6-0.

No doubt about it, these consecutive wins do little to quiet the argument that this team is really struggling to limit scoring chances. It’s fair to wonder about Weight, Snow, and others, even with these victories.

Still, a more confident goalie tandem could really move the needle.

Halak had already been showing some signs of improvement. He’s been heating up since the All-Star Break ended, in particular, with a .925 save percentage over the last eight games. The veteran goalie went on an impressive (if too-little, too-late) last season, so it’s possible that Halak might turn things around once again.

Greiss almost certainly needed his shutout more, though.

The 32-year-old carried a hideous .885 save percentage into this game. For a goalie with a respectable .912 career save percentage and no full season under .908,* it’s been a bewilderingly bad run for the German.

If Halak and Greiss could merely steal some wins here and there, the Islanders could turn their attention to adding a little bit of talent on defense, where they’re clearly ailing. Some injuries have made things more difficult, so improving in that area and getting better goaltending could make the difference in a postseason run versus another gut-punching finish.

Actually, considering the terrifying one-two punch on offense in John Tavares and Mathew Barzal, the Islanders could go from dour to downright scary if they merely become competitive in their own end.

* – Technically, he suffered an .860 save percentage with San Jose in 2007-08, but that was in just three games.

James O’Brien is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @cyclelikesedins.