Photo: Bruce Bennett
On Saturday, the Capitals gave up two goals at even strength (and a garbage empty-netter) in game six, pushing the series to what is likely to be a hurl-inducing game seven on Monday. Usually giving up two goals is a good omen (especially for the talented Capitals), but during this wacky series, in five of the six games the losing team has scored only one goal.
That means that tiny mistakes are magnified. It also means that if you’re focusing on the wrong things– like settling a score or going out of your way to throw a big body check– the open ice you’re surrendering could make the difference between winning and losing, especially against a fast Islanders team.
Two of the Capitals’ leaders made tiny mistakes that turned into back-breaking goals in game six. Let’s review.
Brooks Orpik has been solid in the Caps’ first round series, but on Saturday, he got caught in no-man’s land while trying to gain possession of a loose puck in the neutral zone.
The play starts inauspiciously enough. Nick Leddy tries to break out from the Islanders’ defensive zone by tossing a pass to John Tavares. Except the puck misses its target by a few feet and bounces out to winger Ryan Strome. Strome reaches for the puck, and Brooks Orpik sees his chance to levy another one of those big bruising body checks he’s known for. Just one problem: that would take him out to the red line and completely out of the play. He better gain possession of the puck.
Wuh oh. Strome sees that train coming and avoids Orpik’s hit. A trailing John Tavares picks the loose puck up with speed. John Carlson, who is in perfect position guarding Brock Nelson, sees the breakdown. Nicklas Backstrom must now turn on his burners and get into the play to help defend.
Orpik’s poor decision-making has given the Islanders a gift 2-on-1 break. Backstrom knows that no matter what he does, he’ll never be able to catch Tavares. So he tries to mark Nelson, who is hanging around the blue line trying to stay onside. Carlson shifts backwards and moves to the center of the ice to defend against the odd-man break, seeing that Backstrom may not be able to help him. Carlson is very deep in the Caps zone and caught flat-footed.
Carlson has correctly decided that Backstrom needs some help covering Nelson so he gives Braden Holtby the responsibility of stopping the shooter, Tavares, on the left wing.
Tavares, one of the best and smartest players in the league, notices how deep Carlson is. So instead of forcing a pass or shooting on the wing, he gains the slot and curls to the middle of the ice. Tavares uses all three of the players as a screen and fires the puck past Braden Holtby. 1-0 Isles.
On the Islanders’ game-winning goal, Alex Ovechkin laid a dangerous hit on John Tavares, creating multiple breakdowns.
Twenty seconds before the back-breaking goal, the Caps and Isles engaged in a feisty puck battle near the benches involving teammates Backstrom and Joel Ward.
On the Isles’ next rush in the Caps offensive zone, three Caps players bottle Tavares. This is how you defend a superstar player. Even that Isles’ fan in the crowd is pointing at this play and going Damn, look at that awesome defense.
As Tavares’ shot gets knocked to the corner, Ovechkin goes for the knockout hit.
Ovechkin rails Tavares face-first into the boards. Despite Ovechkin hitting Tavares in the shoulder area, this could have easily been called as boarding, since Tavares had his back turned and was defenseless. The puck rolls around the boards to a pinching Nick Leddy.
Ovechkin thinks the puck is underneath Tavares. Meanwhile, Matt Niskanen, who is guarding the crease, has to make a split second read. Guard Leddy who is gaining the puck or hold the crease and defend Nikolay Kulemin charging hard to the net. Niskanen thinks Chimera has Kulemin, so he leaves the crease for Leddy.
Ovechkin and Alzner are both hanging out with Tavares. Niskanen goes out to Leddy. But Chimera does not see Kulemin pinching.
Leddy hits Kulemin with a perfect pass. Chimera is caught out in no-man’s land. Four Caps players watch as Kulemin dekes Holtby to the ice and slides the puck into the net for the game-winning goal.
The Capitals played a mostly perfect game defensively on Saturday, but as you can see, they paid the ultimate price when Orpik and Ovechkin went out of position for these two big hits.
It just shows you how small the margin of error is during the NHL playoffs. It’s maddening. And it’s also why the more disciplined team will likely win Monday night and advance to play the New York Rangers.
Russian Machine Never Breaks is not associated with the Washington Capitals; Monumental Sports, the NHL, or its properties. Not even a little bit.
All original content on russianmachineneverbreaks.com is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0)– unless otherwise stated or superseded by another license. You are free to share, copy, and remix this content so long as it is attributed, done for noncommercial purposes, and done so under a license similar to this one.