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.

Matt Calvert ejected for butt-ending Alex Ovechkin

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There was some chaos in first period of Tuesday’s Capitals-Blue Jackets game in Columbus.

First, the Blue Jackets jumped all over the Capitals with four goals in the opening frame, including one from one of their recent trade deadline acquisitions, veteran center Mark Letestu.

That offensive outburst led to Capitals goalie Braden Holtby being pulled for the start of the second period.

But it wasn’t just the scoreboard that had some fireworks. As the first period came to a close there was an altercation behind the Columbus net that resulted in Blue Jackets forward Matt Calvert being given a match penalty for butt-ending Capitals superstar Alex Ovechkin right in the face.

Here is a look.

If you are wondering about potential supplemental discipline it is probably worth pointing out that since the NHL’s Department of Player Safety was formed prior to the start of the 2011-12 season no player has ever actually been suspended for butt-ending a player.

Six have been fined for it.

When the two teams came back out for the start of the second period the cameras caught Ovechkin and Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella having a pretty animated conversation.

Ovechkin was the lone bright spot for the Capitals in the first period, scoring his league-leading 39th goal. That goal also brought him one closer to 600 for his career, giving him 597 as of this posting.

It has been an interesting night in Columbus to say the least.

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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.

With Tortorella in town for Cup memories, is this best Lightning team since?

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When sports teams milk nostalgia, like the Tampa Bay Lightning did on Saturday by remembering their 2003-04 Stanley Cup run, it often comes with that tinge of sadness that is part of the word’s meaning.

With John Tortorella watching on from the opposing bench of a very good Columbus Blue Jackets squad, the Lightning’s 5-4 shootout win brought about some different feelings tonight. Granted, coughing up a lead made it tenser than the Bolts probably hoped for, yet it also opened the door for Steven Stamkos to collect the shootout-winner.

The Stanley Cup memories and Tortorella’s presence inspire a bold question: is this the best team the Lightning have boasted since that championship run?

Before we dive into that, here’s video of the ceremony:

And a shot of modern players in those slightly-old throwbacks:

The game itself was a thriller, as the Blue Jackets stormed back from a 4-2 deficit to tie things up 4-4, forcing an eventual shootout. Former Tortorella acolyte Dan Girardi delivered a thunderous check on Matt Calvert during the contest:

Remarkably, the Lightning have reached some pretty high marks even though they haven’t sipped from the silver chalice since the season before the NHL went dark. They’ve enjoyed three deep runs since Torts left town:

2010-11: Finished second in their division (103 points), fell to Boston Bruins in Game 7 of a memorable Eastern Conference Final. The Bruins eventually won it all.

2014-15: Finished second in their division (108 points), lost to the Chicago Blackhawks 4-2 in the 2015 Stanley Cup Final.

2015-16: Finished second in their division (97 points), lost to Pittsburgh Penguins in Game 7 of Eastern Conference Final. Penguins won it all.

Those three deep runs are a helpful reminder that there have been some very good Lightning teams, from Guy Boucher’s brief run to a transition away from Martin St. Louis under Jon Cooper’s reign. It’s interesting to note that the eventual champions knocked out the Bolts in all three of those runs, likely inspiring some fun/wistful “What if?” discussions for hardcore fans in Tampa.

Let’s consider a few facets of this Lightning team, which may just be their best since 2003-04:

  • They’re running away with the Atlantic Division so far. As strong as those previous seasons were, the Bolts peaked in the playoffs. Maybe the Lightning can combine strong regular season work and postseason play, much like in those championship days?
  • They have an identity in net. Do not underestimate how well Andrei Vasilevskiy has been so far in 2017-18. The Ben Bishop – Vasi combo was very strong, but there are advantages to having a clear-cut top guy.
  • A deadly duo: Some of the best Lightning teams have deployed some dynamic duos. St. Louis and Stamkos constituted a prolific partnership, yet Stamkos – Nikita Kucherov might be even better. In a fun twist, Stamkos has taken the Marty role early on, as he’s been more of a facilitator to Kucherov.
  • Interesting supporting cast members: In retrospect, the magic of “The Triplets” line may have largely come from Kucherov. Still, there are some nice players who may be able to help generate some points for the Lightning, with Brayden Point seemingly being GM Steve Yzerman’s latest deft discovery.
  • A brilliant, dangerous defenseman: As great as Dan Boyle was, Victor Hedman is truly special. The addition of Mikhail Sergachev may also help the rest of the blueline maintain a solid level of play.

It’s too early to say that the 2017-18 Lightning will rank among the best in team history. Stamkos and Kucherov need to stay healthy and productive. Cold streaks are bound to come.

Even so, nights like these make it tough not to at least think about such comparisons.

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.

Sergei Bobrovsky’s 34 saves help Blue Jackets top Sabres

A second period outburst that saw three goals in a span of 2:59 powered the Columbus Blue Jackets by the Buffalo Sabres 5-1 Wednesday night.

Sergei Bobrovsky stood tall, stopping 34 shots to record his first win since Oct. 14 and thirteen Blue Jackets recorded a point. Seth Jones, Nick Foligno and Matt Calvert all scored in the middle frame to blow things open and help sink the Sabres to their sixth defeat of the season.

Columbus took advantage of their first power play of the game when Oliver Bjorkstrand wristed a shot by Chad Johnson midway through the first period:

While staving off the Sabres’ attack, Seth Jones gave the Blue Jackets a little breathing room late in the second as they capitalized on a 4-on-3 break:

It was the fourth time this season that the Blue Jackets have scored three goals in a single period.

According to the NHL, the win helped Columbus (6-3-0) match their best nine-game start to a season in franchise history. It also snaps a two-game slide as they prepare for three games in four nights beginning Friday against the Winnipeg Jets.

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Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.

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Blue Jackets face big cap decisions after Wennberg signing

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Aside from some concerns about his numbers being inflated by a robust Blue Jackets power play, the majority of the reviews were very positive for Alex Wennberg‘s new deal with Columbus.

(Read more about his six-year deal with a $4.9 million cap hit here.)

Locking up the intriguing 22-year-old talent settles a big question for the Blue Jackets, but after looking at their salary structure, some agonizing decisions remain. Let’s look at some of those situations and their cap future overall, with help from Cap Friendly’s always-helpful listings.

Commitments

Wennberg is signed through 2022-23, making his deal the longest-standing contract on the Blue Jackets’ roster right now. There are other significant deals, though.

The best one, for my money, is Seth Jones: his $5.4M cap hit runs through 2021-22. The 22-year-old is already starting to put together the numbers (career-high 12 goals and 42 points last season) that make him more than what he already was: a developing star. Even if he bounces somewhere between “very good” and “legit star,” just about any team would fork over $5.4M per year for Jones.

David Savard isn’t too shabby at $4.25M through 2019-20, standing as the only other blueliner with a lengthy deal for CBJ.

Wennberg’s deal stands along with two other forwards as far as lengthier contracts go. Nick Foligno ($5.5M through 2020-21) really improved his standing in the league last season, while Brandon Dubinsky ($5.85M through 2020-21) poses some concerns considering his rougher style and the fact that he’s already 31.

(Then again, you can have worse things on your resume than “Premium Sidney Crosby Disturber.”)

Contract years

Several Blue Jackets face especially fascinating fork-in-the-road seasons.

Cam Atkinson exploded with an All-Star output last season, finishing with career-highs in goals (35), assists (27), and points (62). Ten of his goals and 21 of those points came on that power play, and being that he’s already 28, Columbus might be right to see if he slips a bit before making a big investment.

That said, Atkinson probably ranks as an underrated player, or at least he once did. This marks four straight seasons with at least 21 goals and 40 points.

The question isn’t about Atkinson getting a raise, but instead the keys are “How much of a raise?” and “For how long?” Atkinson carries a $2.9M AAV and would be an unrestricted free agent.

(More on Atkinson’s contract year here.)

After a surprising 30-goal season in 2015-16, Boone Jenner went to 18 goals and 34 points last season. At 24, he’s in an interesting spot as an RFA carrying a $2.2M cap hit.

Ryan Murray ($2.825M) and Jack Johnson ($4.357M) round out the headliners among the contract years, with all due respect to Matt Calvert and Oliver Bjorkstrand.*

Both defensemen are intriguing. Murray, 23, has experienced a frustratingly stilted development thanks to injuries. Johnson, 30, draws plenty of criticism for his defensive play, and one would guess that Columbus would prefer to get a discount on another deal if they bring him back.

(Here’s hoping Johnson sticks around the NHL one way or another, considering his financial/familial mess.)

Huge decisions

As significant as those expiring deals are, the two-year contracts stand as the biggest choices.

A year after injuries and inconsistency made Sergei Bobrovsky‘s $7.425M cap hit look questionable, a brilliant Vezina year (albeit somewhat tainted by playoff struggles) make that price look like a borderline bargain. Still, “Bob” is 28, so he’ll be 30 at the end of his current contract. If he wants a significant raise on a fairly significant clip, will Columbus be on board?

There’s some room for intrigue, as Joonas Korisalo’s $900K deal goes away after two years, as well.

“Cost certainty” was a theme of the Blackhawks’ explanations for their sometimes-shocking summer swaps, and that thought stands out in what Columbus got back in trading Brandon Saad, whose $6M cap hit expires in 2020-21. Artemi Panarin, meanwhile, is only covered through 2018-19 at the same $6M clip.

If Panarin proves that he can generate a ton of offense without Patrick Kane, his price tag could be significant; he’d only be 27 and is slated for UFA status. *Gulp*

The good news is that Zach Werenski (or Zachary?) stands as a tremendous rookie-deal-steal at $925K for two more seasons. The bad part is that Werenski would be in line for a big raise in 2019-20 and beyond.

With Bobrovsky, Panarin, and Werenski all having two years remaining on their contracts, it’s clear that Columbus has some decisions to make, whether they hand out extensions in the summer of 2018 or wait until deals expire.

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Considering how dour things seemed for Columbus just a summer ago, the outlook is a lot sunnier today.

Even so, GM Jarmo Kekalainen faces some crucial choices in the next year or two. Which ways would you lean?

* – Some Blue Jackets execs might root for a Bjorkstrand breakout in 2018-19.