Tonight will be the most important game the Washington Capitals have played in thirty years. Down 3-1 to the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Caps must win to keep hope alive — not just for this season but for the franchise’s quickly vanishing Cup window.
On Friday I wrote about the Caps’ stunning volume of offense – without having many goals to show for it. Now, in the last hours before the puck drops in Game Five, here’s every last idea I’ve got to maximize Washington’s chance to win.
I don’t care which. Whether due to injury or age, each player has glaringly obvious problems with the speed of Pittsburgh’s game. Alzner has had better gap control historically, but he’s not been able to execute it well in 2016-17; whereas we’ve seen Orpik succeed with either Nate Schmidt or Kevin Shattenkirk as his partner, though the latter pair has been burned too many times this postseason.
There’s an additional advantage by icing six defensemen: normalizing defensive pairs and maintaining three viable scoring lines with 12 forwards. Trotz’s may have another notion about the forwards, but I think the Caps have at least two superb defensive pairs in Orlov/Niskanen (taking the toughest matchups) and Schmidt/Carlson (with a more dangerous attack). If the addition of Alzner and Orpik disrupts that top four, that would be a shame.
Note: Trotz will indeed play 7D.
Connolly, Carey and Chorney taking scratches skate. So, 7D again tonight.
— Isabelle Khurshudyan (@ikhurshudyan) May 6, 2017
Judging by his ice-time decisions, Barry Trotz doesn’t think much of Andre Burakovsky and Lars Eller’s game. Despite having convincing stats in both shots and scoring, in the regular season they saw roughly the same amount of ice as a nominal fourth liner like Tom Wilson.
Now both players are snakebit, scoreless on a combined 35 shots. Only three players in modern history have had worse shooting luck: Kevyn Adams in ’06 with no goals on 36 shots, Jaromir Jagr going oh-fer in ’13 on 58 shots, and, of course, Alex Semin’s infamous waste in 2010.
An extra shift or two by Eller and/or Burakovsky might not change the team’s fate. Then again, it might. Either way, they’ve earned it with their defensive stoutness – only the second line fared better in limiting opponent shots during the regular season – and they slow the opponent’s shot rate by more than 20 percent compared to when Ovechkin’s on the ice.
The Caps will have last change in Game Five, which gives them all kinds of flexibility in deployments and matchups. Trotz’s lineup decisions suggest he already recognizes this, and he’ll reportedly double-shift Ovechkin on two lines — including linemates Lars Eller and Tom Wilson on one, and, presumably, Nick Backstrom and TJ Oshie on another.
That’s a great idea — broadening Washington’s attack and getting some different looks in the offensive zone, but how Ovi gets used matters as much as with whom.
Double-shifting means Trotz has twice the opportunities to use Ovechkin for an offensive-zone faceoff, especially following an icing against tired Penguins defensemen. Getting Ovi away from Justin Schultz isn’t a primary concern – Ovi’s shown he can dominate play against the whole Pens D corps; now it’s about getting him as many opportunities as possible to make that play yields goals.
And he’s gotta play darn near the entire power play too.
Jay Beagle scored 13 goals this season, but that’s over now. Beagle’s career-high 13 percent shooting has not carried over into the ‘loffs, and he’s been routinely outplayed (a miserable 40.9 percent of shot attempts, getting outscored 3 to 1) – the sole exception in a rousing possession performance by the Caps these playoffs.
But Beagle has two advantages beyond his 5-on-5 play and Trotz should exploit both. The first is the penalty kill, where Beagle’s been fine but Holtby’s had a horrific 68.7 save percentage (five goals against).
The other is faceoffs. Putting out number 83 for a big defensive-zone draw scares me, but not when he’s out with Justin Williams, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Niskanen. Even in the 45 percent of cases where he loses the draw, I trust those other players to get the puck back. Beagle’s got utility if used in moderation, and I want to see it.
The postseason has been a revelation for one quintet: Evgeny Kuznetsov, Justin Williams, Marcus Johansson, Dmitry Orlov, and Matt Niskanen. They’ve played the toughest minutes by a mile and emerged unscathed (goals are 3 to 3, shot attempts are 58 to 56). During the regular season, those numbers were even better. This is a very special group of players.
The Caps will put their players out last tonight, and whenever they see the Penguins top line (be it Malkin’s or Crosby’s), they should endeavor to put forth this shutdown combo. They won’t let you down.
Mike Sullivan’s Penguins are getting buried in volume, but tactical savvy has armed them with a dangerous transition game. It often goes like this: when the Caps are in the offensive zone an the puck is up high with a defender, the Penguins aggressively stick check, hoping to get a chip-pass to a forward waiting to rush. Because the Penguins forwards are faster than the Caps defensemen, that high-risk check has a high reward: tons and tons of odd-man rushes against Braden Holtby, many of which have resulted in back-breaking goals.
The Caps should force the Penguins to collapse lower or punish them for their aggression. That means, to abuse the cliché, getting pucks deep. Defenders can move to the center of the ice for a slot shot or they can shoot it deliberately wide, but they must not hold or pass when they’re being harassed – they’re not winning those battles and they’re not mining them for chances.
Despite having the puck for about two-thirds of even-strength play, the Caps have had no edge in the penalty differential (19 for, 19 against). For a team that dined out in the regular season on their power play, the lack of diminished man advantage has hurt Washington in this series.
Yes, there have been some chintzy calls, but the team can’t do anything about bad officiating except minimize their exposure. The glut of penalties from Game Four – all in the offensive zone – must not continue. Instead of chasing a Penguin with a stick, the Caps have to move their feet and put their bodies in front of the play instead. That means keeping sticks on the ice and knowing when to walk away from a scrum.
Washington’s power play should be the difference in this series, and it may yet be.
The Caps are shooting 5.5 percent during 5-on-5 and 6.3 percent overall. Those numbers were much higher in the regular season – 9.2 and 10.5. The Caps are getting crummy shooting luck compared to their excellent and unsustainable fortune in the regular season. But the thing about abnormally low percentages is that they cannot survive a maturing sample.
What’s done is done, but the Caps’ best path forward requires resoluteness. Marc-Andre Fleury’s decline is inevitable (Holtby’s improvement is too), but it’s on the Caps to speed it along by sending a hundred discs of vulcanized rubber his way.
At its core, luck is mercurial and inscrutable. Washington should be secure in the knowledge that they are not a sham at last revealed by a better team. This is the best team in the league. The truth will bear out, if they let it. The Caps should stay the goddamn course, and let the series become manifest evidence of their superiority. I believe; they should too.
Okay, last one:
It’s really important not to kick pucks into your own net.
Dmitry Orlov with the worst luck ever pic.twitter.com/Oj6mOeCuUa
— Ian Oland (@ianoland) May 4, 2017
I cannot emphasize this enough.
Headline photo: Patrick McDermott
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