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Playoff Notebook -- April

by Mike Vogel / Washington Capitals
In winning their second straight Southeast Division title, the Capitals finished with the second seed in the 2008-09 Eastern Conference standings. The Caps drew the New York Rangers as their opponent in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series, facing the Blueshirts in the postseason for the first time in 15 years.

April 15 vs. New York Rangers, Game 1
Familiar Feel –
Washington bounced back from a two-goal deficit to even the score early in the third at 3-3, but Brandon Dubinsky scored what proved to be the game-winner at 11:17 of the final frame to give the Rangers a 4-3 Game 1 win and a 1-0 series lead.

Both teams now have two days to think, adjust and rest before the puck drops for Game 2 on Saturday afternoon at Verizon Center.

Washington dominated the first period in all aspects of the game, but failed to turn that dominance into a lead on the scoreboard. The Caps have had several such games this season where their inability to grab an early lead despite early dominance has resulted in a loss.

The Caps outshot New York by a 14-4 margin in the first period of Wednesday’s Game 1. They outhit the Rangers by 16-11. They won 11 of 15 draws. They also failed to score, allowing the Blueshirts a moral victory of escaping a poorly played first period and still being even on the scoreboard. New York got good goaltending from Henrik Lundqvist in the first, and it kept the Rangers in the game until they were able to get some pucks behind Caps goalie Jose Theodore.

New York turned the tide of the physical game on Washington, outhitting the Caps 24-11 over the game’s final 40 minutes.

“We found a way,” said Rangers coach John Tortorella after his team wrested home ice advantage in the series from the Caps in Game 1. “[There were] ups and downs throughout the game by both teams. Dubinsky makes a key play at a key time and scores the game winner. We feel good about it. We’re in for a series here. I’m happy about winning one of them and we’ll get ready to play the next one.”

Making The Most –
New York managed only 21 shots on goal in Game 1, getting 11 of them in the middle frame when they scored three unanswered goals in a span of 10:39.

Six times during the regular season Washington held the opposition to 21 or fewer shots on goal. The Capitals were 6-0 in those six games.

“We allowed 21 shots and [four] power plays,” said Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “I thought we did a great job defensively. I don’t know how many chances to score they had, I haven’t figured that out yet, but I don’t think it was a lot. They scored four goals. That’s crazy. I thought we played great defensively.”

April 18 vs. New York Rangers, Game 2
Surprise Starter –
Just prior to this time last year, Caps goaltender Simeon Varlamov was spending the waning days of his teenage years backstopping Yaroslavl of the Russian Super League to within a game of the league title. Varlamov fashioned a 1.62 GAA and five shutouts in 16 playoff games last spring.

Today, nine days shy of his 21st birthday, Varlamov was installed as the Washington starter for Game 2 of the Caps’ Eastern Conference Semifinal Series against the New York Rangers.

Varlamov played well, but New York’s Ryan Callahan capitalized on an early Washington mistake to score the game’s only goal at 7:44 of the first period. The Caps went on to a 1-0 loss and are now in an 0-2 hole as the series shifts to New York’s Madison Square Garden for Game 3 on Monday night.

Washington’s Game 1 starter Jose Theodore was given Saturday off after surrendering four goals on 21 shots in Wednesday’s 4-3 Game 1 loss.

Varlamov (six career regular season NHL games played) had the least regular-season experience of a starting goaltender in the Stanley Cup playoffs since Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff (five games played for San Jose in 2001). Varlamov became just the fourth rookie goaltender to start a playoff game for Washington, joining Bob Mason, Byron Dafoe and Jim Carey.

A Goal Shy – Washington has now lost 11 of the last 15 one-goal games it has played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Missing the Mark – For the second straight game the Capitals dealt in offensive volume, but they may be trafficking too much in quantity and not enough in quality.

In Wednesday’s Game 1, the Caps launched 72 shots on goal to New York’s 48, but only 35 Capital shots went on goal while the Rangers got 21 shots on net. The rest were either blocked in front or missed the mark altogether.

Saturday brought more of the same. The Capitals outgunned New York 88-48 in pure shots, and now lead 160-96 in the series in that category. Washington had 35 shots on goal in Saturday’s game. It also had 29 shots blocked and 24 more that missed the net.

April 20 at New York Rangers, Game 3
New Paint Job –
Heading into Wednesday’s Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series between the Capitals and the New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden, there was plenty of talk about how Washington needed to solve New York goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to give itself a fighting chance in the series.

That sort of talk was understandable, given that the Caps had pumped 44 straight shots on goal – and countless others “off” goal – against Lundqvist without lighting the red lamp. The stalwart New York goaltender had not allowed a goal in 78:18, dating back to the third period of Game 1.

The Capitals answered the challenge, getting two first period goals on Lundqvist in Game 3, and taking the crowd out of the contest. The Caps got another tally in the second, earning the first lead of more than two goals for any team in this series.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the ice, 20-year-old Russian rookie Simeon Varlamov held the New York shooters at bay. He pitched a 4-0 shutout to breathe life into the Caps in this series, and to turn the question of which team is struggling offensively back on the Rangers.

After scoring four goals on just 21 shots on goal in Game 1 against Caps goalie Jose Theodore, New York has now mustered only one goal on 57 shots in two games against Varlamov, who entered the series with but six games worth of regular season NHL experience. Varlamov has blanked the Rangers for the last 112:16 of the series.

Varlamov’s shutout was the first playoff whitewash by a Washington goaltender since Olie Kolzig blanked the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 10, 2003. Before Varlamov shutout the Rangers on Monday, Kolzig had authored each of Washington’s  last six playoff shutouts.

Varlamov joined Bob Mason as just the second rookie goaltender ever to pitch a postseason shutout for the Capitals. Mason blanked the New York Islanders on April 11, 1987 in the first playoff shutout in Caps team history.

Finally, the Caps’ Monday night shutout over the Rangers represented the largest winning margin ever in a playoff shutout from a Washington team.

Ten/Ten – Varlamov’s shutout was the 10th in Caps playoff history. It came one game after Lundqvist earned the 10th shutout against Washington in its playoff history.

Russian Influence – Washington’s heavy Russian contingent made its imprint on Game 3. Varlamov made 33 saves to earn the first shutout of his NHL career.

Alexander Semin had two goals and three points, a single-game playoff best for him. His two first-period strikes gave the Caps their first lead of the series since they briefly (for 69 seconds) held an advantage in Game 1.

Alex Ovechkin had a pair of assists and made a terrific diving pokecheck to thwart a breakaway bid from New York’s Lauri Korpikoski in the second period.

Sergei Fedorov recorded an assist on Brooks Laich’s second period power play goal, recording the 169th Stanley Cup playoff point of his NHL career in the process. Fedorov ranks 17th on the league’s all-time list in that department, just two points behind Peter Forsberg (171) for 16th on the all-time ledger.

Other Efforts – Varlamov’s shutout and Semin’s two goals dominated the scoresheet, but other Caps were key performers in Monday’s Game 3 win at Madison Square Garden.

Caps center Nicklas Backstrom had three assists, two of them of the primary variety. His secondary assist was as good a secondary helper as you’ll see. He bounced off a check from New York’s Ryan Callahan, sending the latter to the ice as he passed the puck to Ovechkin on the play that started Semin’s second goal.

After the game, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau singled out Backstrom’s work on the Caps’ fourth goal of the night for special mention. Backstrom was named the game’s No. 3 star for his efforts.

Rugged blueliner John Erskine continued his yeoman’s work in this series, too. The Caps’ best player to some eyes while playing 19:03 in Saturday’s Game 2 loss, Erskine turned in a solid 18:33 in Game 3, ably protecting the crease in front of Varlamov while refusing to take the bait offered up by the Rangers’ Sean Avery. Erskine skated an average of 16:46 a night during the regular season.

Erskine’s partner Brian Pothier had his best game since returning from a 15-month absence because of the after-effects of a concussion. Pothier, a healthy scratch in Washington’s 4-3 Game 1 loss, played 18:06 on the night. He blocked two shots, fired four of his own and picked up an assist. Pothier was sound at both ends of the ice.

Finally, defenseman Tom Poti led Washington rearguards with 31 shifts and 23:02 of ice. He netted his first goal since November and the first playoff goal of his NHL career in the third period, biting the hand that once fed him as he victimized the Rangers, one of his former NHL employers. Aside from the goal, Poti played his usual stellar game at the Washington end of the pond.

April 22 at New York Rangers, Game 4
Not Enough –
For the fourth time in as many games, the Capitals fired 35 or more shots on goal against New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist. And for the third time in those four games, Washington came up on the short end of a one-goal decision.

Lundqvist made 38 stops in the Rangers’ 2-1 win over the Caps in Game 4 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series between the two teams. The loss pushes Washington to the brink of another first-round exit on the heels of the best regular season showing in franchise history. The Blueshirts hold a commanding 3-1 lead in the series with Game 5 on Friday night at Verizon Center.

Although the Caps have outscored the Rangers 8-7 in the series, they’re one loss away from cleaning out their lockers and heading home for the summer.

Two nights after the Caps scored four goals on Lundqvist in a 4-0 Game 3 victory, the Caps were able to put just one of 39 shots behind the stalwart Rangers goaltender.

New York got a goal from Paul Mara in the first period on a shot that caromed in off Caps defenseman John Erskine. The Rangers’ Brandon Dubinsky won an offensive zone draw back to Mara, who fired a shot that was headed wide to the right of Washington goaltender Simeon Varlamov. But the puck hit Erskine and bounced toward the net and in, up over Varlamov’s shoulder.

The Rangers pushed their lead to 2-0 early in the second when Varlamov was unable to corral a weak shot from New York captain Chris Drury, who is playing despite an injury to his arm/wrist that has hampered his shot and his face-off ability. Drury swooped in and collected his own rebound, then flipped it top shelf over Varlamov’s shoulder.

The Caps outshot New York 30-10 in the final two periods and by a 28-8 margin after Drury’s goal.

While the Rangers scored on a fluke and a gift, the Caps finally solved Lundqvist early in the third when Alex Ovechkin rifled a slapper high off the crossbar and in to put Washington on the board. Sergei Fedorov rang a shot off the post behind Lundqvist in the first period and Ovechkin did so in the third. Once again though – as is seemingly the case every April for the last decade – the breaks didn’t go the Caps’ way on this night.

Familiar Situation – Washington heads home now, down 3-1 in a playoff series, on the brink of elimination. The Caps were in the same spot last spring after a Game 4 loss in double-overtime to the Flyers in Philadelphia.

The Capitals won Game 5 at Verizon Center and Game 6 in Philly to force a seventh game in the District, but lost Game 7 in overtime at the Phone Booth.

Washington has never won a playoff series in which it lost the first two games. It has won only one series in which it trailed three games to one.

April 24 vs. New York Rangers, Game 5
Right Goal by the Right Guy at the Right Time –
Caps right wing Matt Bradley picked a great spot for the first Stanley Cup playoff goal of his NHL career. Playing in the 22nd playoff contest of his NHL career, Bradley was out killing a penalty for the Caps when he raced after a loose puck just inside the New York line. He scooped it up, skated in and calmly did what the Capitals have had so much trouble doing in this series, he beat Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

The goal energized the crowd and Bradley’s teammates, and the Caps cruised to a 4-0 win. Washington lives to play another day; the Rangers still lead the series 3-2 with Game 6 coming on Sunday afternoon at Madison Square Garden.

It took 22 games for Bradley’s first playoff goal, but just over seven minutes for his second. Just for good measure, Bradley added a second strike on Lundqvist 7:09 later. The two-goal game was his first since he potted a pair against the Boston Bruins on March 3, 2008.

Prior to his pair of tallies in Friday night’s Game 5, Bradley’s previous playoff tally came in 2001 when he was a member of the AHL’s Kentucky Thoroughblades.

No Kidding – Still a few days shy of his 21st birthday, Caps goaltender Simeon Varlamov posted his second 4-0 shutout of this series. After Jose Theodore allowed four New York goals on 21 shots in 60 minutes of work in Game 1 of this series, Varlamov has permitted just three goals on 98 shots in 240 minutes of work. He has a 0.76 playoff GAA and a .969 save pct.

Varlamov joins Olie Kolzig and Don Beaupre as the third Caps goalie ever to record more than one playoff shutout in his NHL career. Varlamov and Kolzig (four shutouts in 1998) are the only two Washington netminders ever to record multiple playoff shutouts in the same postseason.

Short Stuff –
Bradley’s shorthanded goal was the first by a Capital in a playoff game since Steve Konowalchuk victimized the Penguins for a shorthanded strike on April 19, 2000.

Another One – Ovechkin electrified the crowd in the final minute of the second period with another in his seemingly endless quiver of highlight reel goals.

Ovechkin collected the puck at the New York line. He spun Chris Drury around, eluding the Rangers captain in the process. He then put the puck through the legs of defenseman Derek Morris, also turning him into a top. He then lowered his right shoulder and carried the puck to the net with New York’s Aaron Voros in pursuit. With Voros riding herd on Ovechkin’s back, the Washington winger went down to the ice, sliding a backhander past Lundqvist as he did so.

With that goal, Drury was at minus-3 in just 7:10 of ice time on the night. He took one third-period twirl that lasted a total of 11 seconds.

April 26 at New York Rangers, Game 6
O From the D –
Throughout the first five games of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series between the Capitals and the New York Rangers, the stellar play of the Washington defense had been overlooked by many.

In Sunday’s Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, the Caps defense grabbed the spotlight early for altogether different reasons. Three different Caps defensemen scored in the first period, helping to spur Washington to a 5-3 victory over the Rangers in a game that wasn’t as close as the score would indicate. The victory forces a deciding Game 7 at Verizon Center on Tuesday night.

Milan Jurcina started the party with his first-ever Stanley Cup playoff goal at 7:09 of the first. Jurcina, who possesses arguably the heaviest shot among all the Caps, passed on booming his slapper and instead pulled a rarely used wrister from his quiver. It beat Lundqvist high to the glove (short) side to give the Caps a 1-0 lead.

New York tied the game just over a minute later, but Mike Green notched his first goal of the 2009 playoffs on a Washington power play at 13:58 to give the Caps a lead they would not relinquish. Green’s goal also went high on the glove (short) side.

Tom Poti exited the penalty box to scoop up a loose puck and create a 3-on-1 break with Caps penalty killers David Steckel and Boyd Gordon late in the first. Poti passed to Gordon, who fed Steckel, who returned the puck to Poti. The Caps defenseman tapped in a lay-up for his second goal of the playoffs.

Poti later assisted on each of Washington’s final two tallies of the afternoon in the second period.

While the Caps defense will earn some much-deserved notice for its offensive outburst on Sunday, it’s about time the unit got some kudos for its work at its own end of the ice. The Capitals have allowed just 23.8 shots on goal per game during the playoffs, fewest among the 16 teams who began competition for the Stanley Cup at season’s end.

The Washington defense allowed an average of 29.5 shots on goal per game during the regular season, the 13th best rate in the NHL.

Biting The Hand – Poti’s big game came against his former employer. He spent three-plus seasons with the Rangers, and recorded the only previous four-point game (four assists) as a member of the Blueshirts against the Islanders on Feb. 19, 2004.

Lunch Bucketers – For Friday’s Game 6 in Washington, Caps coach Bruce Boudreau cobbled together an energy line consisting of Brooks Laich, David Steckel and Matt Bradley. That trio was the starting unit in Game 6, and it helped Washington get out to a 2-0 first period lead with a pair of Bradley goals.

Once again on Sunday, the Steckel-centered unit was the Caps’ starting trio, and an effective group throughout the game. Laich had an assist and Steckel had a pair of helpers, and Bradley dealt out a team-high four hits.

The Steckel line was out on the ice for Marc Staal’s meaningless goal in the waning seconds of Sunday’s game, a tally that made the final score 5-3. To look at Steckel, Bradley and Laich after the goal, you’d have thought they had been out for the game’s tying tally.

That sort of pride in workmanship is why you’re likely to see them out on the Verizon Center sheet to start Tuesday’s Game 7.

April 28 vs. New York Rangers, Game 7
Big Players, Big Goals, Big Games –
Caps center Sergei Fedorov played in the 176th Stanley Cup playoff game of his NHL career on Tuesday. He is now one game shy of matching Hockey Hall of Famer Al MacInnis for 25th on the league’s all-time list in that department.

Thanks to his game-winning goal that gave the Caps a 2-1 win over the New York Rangers in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, Fedorov won’t have to wait beyond this playoff season to catch MacInnis.

Fedorov snapped a sharp wrist shot over the catching glove of Rangers goaltender Henrik Lundqvist at 15:01 of the third period tonight to give the Caps the lead, the victory and the series. The goal was 52nd of his playoff career, and the 172nd point of his Stanley Cup playoff career. He has six career points (three goals, three assists) in eight career Game 7s.

“It was just a regular break out,” says Fedorov in describing his game-winner. “It was two-on-two in their zone. Not much else going on, so I decided to shoot the puck. I stopped and I did it and it went in top corner short side. I didn’t think too much about it. Entering the zone, make sure the puck went deep. The D[efense] gave me some room, when I stopped so I choose to shoot. I knew the D[efense] was giving me short side. I shot it top shelf.”

Top shelf, short side. That’s where the Caps began exploiting Lundqvist in Sunday’s Game 6 at Madison Square Garden. Fedorov, who had clanged a few shots off the post earlier in the series, picked his spot and hit it tonight.

Fedorov is now tied with Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux for 15th place on the league’s all-time playoff scoring list. Fedorov now has 12 game-winning goals in Stanley Cup playoff competition, tied for 17th on the NHL’s all-time list in that department.

From Russia, With Glove – He celebrated his 21st birthday a day before standing between the pipes for the Capitals in Tuesday’s deciding Game 7. That deciding game was his sixth game of the playoffs, as many as he played during the regular season.

Caps goaltender Simeon Varlamov was the story of the series, taking over in the Washington nets from Jose Theodore after New York’s Game 1 win. Varlamov was 4-2 with a 1.17 GAA and a .952 save pct. in the series against the Rangers.

Varlamov is second in the NHL in playoff GAA and third in save pct. He is tied for the league lead with two shutouts.

21 – Washington became just the 21st team in league history (in 230 occasions, 9.1%) to rebound from a 3-1 series deficit to win a series. The Caps also became the 38th team in 292 instances (13%) to win a series after falling behind 2-0.

Tuesday’s triumph was the Caps’ first ever in a Game 7 at Verizon Center, and it was just the second Game 7 win in franchise history and the first in 21 years. The Caps are now 2-5 in Game 7s during their history.

The Capitals are now 6-1 when facing elimination in the last two seasons, including the final game of the 2007-08 regular season.

Stonewalled – Washington limited the Rangers to just 15 shots on goal in Tuesday’s deciding Game 7. Only one of those shots came in the third period.

The Caps held the Rangers to just 23.7 shots on goal per game in the series, the fewest of the 16 first-round playoff teams.

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