Hockey/Other

Capitals to Continue Playoff Gauntlet vs Penguins

 

After taking a 3-0 series lead, the Capitals looked like an insurmountable juggernaut vs the hated Philadelphia Flyers. Yet, after 2 consecutive losses in Games 4 and 5, the old questions arouse again but this time, the Caps had their own hot goalie and ended the series in six games.

How long would it take the Capitals to flip the switch?  

After a penalty-marred, lackluster first period in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals series vs the hated Philadelphia Flyers, fans wondered if the late season apathy had continued into the postseason

It wouldn’t take too long because from the second period in Game 1 throughout the series, the Capitals thoroughly outplayed and outclassed the Flyers with great defense, a killer penalty killing unit, and overt aggression rarely seen from the Capitals.  Whether it was Alex Ovechkin with bone jarring hits to Flyers star Sean Couturier in Game 1, knocking him out of the series, or Tom Wilson or TJ Oshie with the fisticuffs, the Capitals didn’t back down to any of the Flyers shenanigans.  

The overall team defense was outstanding and that all starts and ends with the leadership of goalie Braden Holtby.  Six goals allowed in six games is an amazing statistic no matter who your playing.  Philadelphia power-play unit was almost completely shut out for the series going a feeble 1-24 with the advantage.  The penalty-kill unit along with Holtby’s MVP-level performance was so good is that no matter how close the game was, it seemed as if the game was always winnable because they would always keep the team close enough to have a chance.

This was the first time the Caps have ever closed out a series with a 1-0 win. It’s only the second time they’ve won a series with a shutout; the last came during their 1998 Stanley Cup finals run. The six goals they allowed to Philadelphia were the fewest they’ve ever yielded in a best-of-seven series. Their postseason goals-against average — a tidy 1.0 — is easily the best in the league.

“I believe I should make those stops every time,” Holtby said. “Hopefully, at that point of the game it shows that I’m prepared to the rest of the bench and that’s all you can really ask for is an opportunity to start, to contribute to the way the game is going to play out. Did it tonight and now our focus is to do it the next game.”

“You just want to battle for as long as you can with the game that you’re handed, and that’s what happened tonight,” Holtby said. “Every game is different. You just have to react to it and take it one shot at a time.”

One thing that makes the race to the Stanley Cup so daunting, is that momentum is fleeting.  As Caps fans know, having a nice lead in a series means nothing.  Once Philly changed goalies from Steve Mason to former Cap Michael Neuvirth for Game 4,  you could sense that momentum shift. You could hear Caps fans from all over repeating to themselves “Here we go again!” thinking that the series was slipping away after the two losses in Games 4 and 5 but this is a different team.

Instead of the young, impressionable teams of the early 10’s, this team is veteran laden and will not succumb to the pressures living up to the failures of Capitals teams of the past.  It’s going to take maximum effort in all phases of the game to defeat this team.  Nicklas Backstom’s game winning goal in Game 6 may have awaken him from this scoring lull, Justin Williams will not play another game as bad as his Game 5, and TJ Oshie, John Carlson and Marcus Johannson played so well in the series, it should translate into the next round.

Its very early in this playoff gauntlet, and with the hated Penguins up next, the Capitals must find a way to get easier scoring opportunities.  They must get going offensively though because the Penguins will bring more offensive pressure than the Flyers.  Sidney Crosby is playing his best hockey in two years, Evgeni Malkin is still a great player and most importantly, this is a heated rivalry.

The NHL couldn’t have asked for anything more (except maybe not starting this series on the same day as the NFL Draft). As great as Ovechkin and Crosby have been for their respective franchises, this is only the second time meeting in the playoffs. The previous meeting in the 2010 playoffs was a classic that went to seven games as the Pens dominated Game 7 at Verizon Center.

I happened to attend that game.  

I left midway through the second period.

These teams just  flat out hate each other.  But as long as Holtby continues his MVP-level type goaltending, they will have a chance in almost every game and series forthcoming.

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