Five years ago, Jaroslav Halak frustrated the Washington Capitals to a stunning first-round loss. He has a lot more help this time around with the 2014-15 New York Islanders, yet you can forgive some Caps fans if Wednesday brought back bad memories.
The Islanders topped the Capitals 4-1 to take a 1-0 series lead, and while Brock Nelson’s second goal inflated the difference in the form of an empty-netter, the Islanders looked awfully impressive.
The Islanders didn’t really see their play drop off much, even when they had a comfortable lead. That has to be a wake-up call for Washington, and perhaps a message to the rest of the East: a team that looked like a powerhouse may not be slumping as much as some think.
It’s hard to imagine Alex Ovechkin being kept off the scoreboard every night, mind you, although it will be interesting to see if Barry Trotz continues to try to get balanced offense by splitting him from common running mate Nicklas Backstrom.
The two teams meet again for Game 2 at the Verizon Center on Friday, so the Caps need to shake off this setback or they’ll be in quite the early hole.
#Isles win 4-1. Just about perfect road game, helped greatly by Caps playing a bit disinterested.
Around this time in 2014, Alex Ovechkin experienced a season so rotten his hair literally turned gray. The Caps missed the playoffs, people obsessed over his plus/minus rating and the Russian Olympic hockey team crashed and burned in Sochi.
Some paint Barry Trotz as the wizard who finally got Ovechkin to play along. Others say No. 8’s scoring stats really aren’t that different from 2013-14. Wherever you land in that specific argument, the tenor is far more positive regarding the Ovechkin this year than it was the last.
Much of sports writing revolves around praising or lambasting a star player when his team wins or loses — yet the dirty secret is that success or failure often boils down to the supporting cast.
So the biggest reason why this might be Ovechkin’s year isn’t because he stopped “gliding.” It’s because the Caps are the most competent and stable they’ve been since the happy days of the Bruce Boudreau era.
“This is a different team compared to the last couple years,” Ovechkin said, per CSN Washington. “A mature team, an experienced team.
“It’s a lot different.”
Simply put, Ovi’s getting a lot more help.
Braden Holtby’s put together a borderline Vezina season; while Semyon Varlamov showed flashes of brilliance with Washington, the bottom line is that Holtby’s the best net option the Capitals have had since Ovechkin first put on that goofy eagle sweater.
The Capitals also invested big-time in their defense this offseason, and it’s paid off. Matt Niskanen is starting to feel it, with 11 of his 31 points pouring in since March. John Carlson’s enjoying easily the best season of his career, and Mike Green hasn’t been too shabby as he chases a new deal, either.
Washington’s offense isn’t as explosive as it once was, yet there’s reason to think that they can survive a slow night or two from their big guns. Ten different players scored at least 10 goals this year; 17 skaters scored at least 17 points. Marcus Johansson found the back of the net a career-high 20 times, and Troy Brouwer tied a personal best with 43 points.
Caps GM Brian McLellan says the club’s secondary scoring behind Ovechkin (and Nicklas Backstrom) could be vital for a successful Cup run.
“That’s going to be the key, I think, to winning a lot of the games,” he said, per CSN Washington. “Goals scored by third and fourth line guys at the right moment. A rebound goal, a traffic goal. I don’t think it’s total numbers, I think it’s more impact goals than it is anything else for those guys.
“We’re going to need all those guys to chip in – [Jason] Chimera, [Joel] Ward, Brooks Laich, [Curtis] Glencross – we’re going to need big goals from those guys to be successful.”
Overall, the Capitals have the most forward depth, best goalie and best defensive group since Ovechkin came to DC. They also have an experienced head coach in a wide-open Eastern Conference.
Will that be enough for Ovechkin to finally break through at the team level after all those years of frustration? A lot of things can happen in the postseason, obviously, but it’s been a long time since Ovechkin’s outlook was this optimistic.
NBCSN will continue its coverage of the 2014-15 campaign tonight with a doubleheader. The first of the two contests will feature the Washington Capitals hosting the Boston Bruins, with the puck scheduled to drop at 8:00 p.m. ET. In addition to NBCSN, you can also watch the game and pre-show online.
Boston has won five straight games to keep itself in the playoff race, but with the Ottawa Senators’ surge continuing, it hasn’t been enough to secure a postseason berth for the Bruins.
A loss against the Washington Capitals tonight won’t push the Bruins out of the playoff picture, but it would make the margin of error for Boston significantly smaller in its final two contests against Florida and Tampa Bay. Maintaining the winning streak will be tough for the Bruins against the similarly hot Capitals, but Boston at least caught a bit of a break during Tuesday’s practice.
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Bruins captain Zdeno Chara was back on the ice after being held off on Monday. He had been labeled as day-to-day, but Bruins coach Claude Julien now seems optimistic about Chara’s chances of being available for tonight’s game.
That would certainly be a boost, although it might not be enough. Capitals goaltender Braden Holtby has already earned two shutouts against Boston this season. Washington forward Nicklas Backstrom has also been a thorn in the Bruins’ side with four points over those two games.
“We’re not here certainly feeling overconfident,” said Julien, per the team’s website. “Because we still haven’t scored on them yet in two games, so we need to be better there tomorrow and find a way to get past their goaltender.”
Perhaps Ryan Spooner will ultimately be the one to solve Washington. Since being called up on Feb. 21, Spooner has been a key forward for Boston with eight goals and 18 points in 21 games. If not for his efforts, Boston might not be in a playoff position going into today’s action.
“We talk about bringing some young legs in, we talk about speed, we talk about skill — (Spooner’s) been able to bring that,” Julien said. “When he was here the first few times, he just brought portions of that. Now, he’s brought it all, and it’s made a big difference in his game. It’s made a big difference in our game.”
Washington has already secured a postseason berth, but the Capitals still need these two points. As things currently stand, it looks like they’ll be in for a tough battle against the New York Islanders in the first round. What remains to be seen is which team will have the home-ice advantage in that series and a win tonight would certainly help Washington as it tries to clinch the second seed in the Metropolitan Division.
Alex Ovechkin reached the 50-goal mark and tied Peter Bondra for first place in the Capitals’ all-time goals leaderboard with 472 on Tuesday. He didn’t have to wait much longer to claim sole possession of the top spot.
With the Capitals on the power play, Ovechkin weaved through Canadiens blueliner P.K. Subban before beating goaltender Carey Price with a wrist shot:
Ovechkin is also the Capitals’ all-time leader in points, although he ranks second in assists behind Nicklas Backstrom.
On the NHL’s career leaderboard, Ovechkin’s 473 goals puts him in a three-way tie for 51st place with Denis Savard and Alexander Mogilny. Not bad for a 29-year-old.
The Capitals captain looks like a lock to win his third straight Richard Trophy and fifth overall. The bigger question at this point is if he’ll take the Hart Trophy for the fourth time. Ovechkin would certainly appreciate it if he won, but he emphasized that individual trophies aren’t his goal.
“To be honest with you, I don’t need that kind of stuff [individual awards],” Ovechkin told ESPN prior to tonight’s contest. “If I win, it will be great, but I need, this organization needs, a Cup. I want to be selfish in that kind of category instead.”