Reporting David Elfin
WASHINGTON (CBSDC) - When your town hasn’t won a major pro championship in more than two decades – pardon me United and Kastles – you take what you can get from your teams.
So we will look back on 2012-13 as a terrific year during which the Nats, Redskins and Caps all gave Washington division titles.
However, the hockey team is getting awfully close to joining its baseball and football brethren in repeating an ugly postseason pattern. Is it something in the Potomac River’s water?
Few have forgotten that the host Nats led the St. Louis Cardinals 6-0 in the decisive game of the National League Division Series back in October only to lose 9-7 and that the Redskins led the visiting Seattle Seahawks 14-0 in an NFC wild card game in January only to lose 24-14.
And now the Caps, the resident kings of blown leads, are tied with the Rangers 2-2 after winning the first two games of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals. Sure, two of the remaining three games (including the final one, if necessary) will be skated at Verizon Center, but this is a star-crossed franchise whose playoff appearances have ended on home ice 13 times. The final home game was lost in seven other years when the Caps were then eliminated on the road. Only last year and in 1993 and 1994 did Washington win its final home playoff game.
That’s mind-boggling history: in 20 of their previous 23 playoff springs, the Caps lost their last home game. It hasn’t mattered whether they were wearing red, white and blue or blue, bronze and white or whether they were skating at Capital Centre or Verizon Center, they almost always left the home fans blue.
Speaking of blue, after Braden Holtby and Co. clamped down on the Rangers during the first two games, holding them to a lone goal in 128 minutes, once the New Yorkers shed their white jerseys in favor of their Broadway Blueshirts, the Caps couldn’t stop them. New York scored eight goals the past two games, winning each contest by a 4-3 count.
Washington’s defeats in Games 3 & 4 at Madison Square Garden ended a trio of streaks. Holtby lost back-to-back games for the first time in his two-year playoff career. The Caps lost consecutive contests for the first time since Mar. 10-12. And they allowed eight goals in a two-game span for the first time since Mar. 30-31 (Mar. 10-12 if overtime games aren’t included).
Those are all very bad indictators of what could lie ahead for the Caps. Having covered five series in which Washington had a two-game lead and lost (1987, 1992, 1995, 1996 and 2003) and watched similar collapses from afar in 2009 and 2010, the scenario is all too familiar. If New York scores first in Game 5 at Verizon Center tomorrow night, the collective groan from the Washington fans could probably power the building’s generators and the Caps’ grip on their sticks will surely get a lot tighter.
If Game 3 could be explained away to a certain degree by the Rangers’ desperation, their dominance of late on home ice and by the ridiculous power play imbalance, what to say about Game 4?
Certainly there were some curious calls. Alex Ovechkin and Martin Erat both getting whistled for taking down Derek Stepan on the same play was something I had never seen and Jason Chimera’s interference penalty at the second period horn was also highly questionable.
However, Holtby’s botched clear that produced the game’s first goal was unforgivable as was Marcus Johansson’s half-hearted clearing attempt that ultimately caused Stepan’s second straight game-winner. Washington’s vaunted, NHL-best power play also came up small for the second straight game, fizzling both times. The Caps were zero-for-5 with the extra man in New York after clicking twice in seven tries at home. My 17-year-old said she heard me yelling “Shoot!” from two floors away as Mike Ribeiro kept passing up opportunities to test Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist with the clock was running down on Monday night and Washington skating 6 on 4.
Paranoid Washingtonians who believe that the NHL wants New York to win the series because it’s the biggest market (not sure how Washington’s victories in these near-annual matchups in 2009 and 2011 jibe with that theory), point to the Rangers having had five more power plays than the Caps. But Washington is faltering with the extra skater(s) because assist mavens Ribeiro and Nicklas Backstrom would much rather pass than shoot, New York’s aggressive penalty-killers can focus on Ovechkin and blue-line snipers Mike Green and John Carlson.
Ovechkin, who put 23 pucks in the net in Washington’s last 23 games to win his third goal scoring title, managed just three shots in the Garden after launching 12 at Lundqvist on F Street. Green, Chimera, Mathieu Perrault and Joel Ward all have more points in the series than Ovechkin’s two and the first three each have two goals to the two-time MVP’s lone strike back in Game 1.
Caps rookie coach Adam Oates gave his players Tuesday off, declaring that the rest would be a weapon in their arsenal. It wasn’t. Washington hasn’t had a lead since Holtby’s 124:05 scoreless streak ended during the first period of Game 3.
The Caps need to recapture the mojo they had throughout April and into the first two games of the series. They need to pepper Lundqvist with shots, preferably from Ovechkin, but if the Rangers keep bottling him up, others — Troy Brouwer, Backstrom, Perreault, Johansson and even Ribeiro — have to keep smacking pucks towards the net. Holtby and his protectors have to be smarter and crisper as they try to clear the defensive zone. And Washington can’t keep giving New York so many power plays.
That sounds like a lot to ask, but that’s what the Caps did to gain a 2-0 lead in the series. If they don’t return to those fundamentals starting tomorrow night, they’ll be well on their way to adding yet another depressing chapter to their playoff history and to the litany of postseason failures by Washington teams.
David Elfin began writing about sports when he was a junior at Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School. He is Washington’s representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame selection committee and the author of seven books, most recently, “Washington Redskins: The Complete Illustrated History.” A pre-game regular on 106.7-The Fan the last three Redskins seasons, he has been its columnist since March 2011. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidElfin