Yesterday’s blog post was entitled “Red Wings, Flyers, Capitals Look to Get on the Board.” Well, none of them did, and thus we have the least interesting second round in hockey history. At this point, all we have is the Vancouver / Nashville series to provide us with any drama whatsoever from the NHL’s conference semifinals. Game 4 in that series is tonight at 8:30 p.m. ET, and is being televised live from Nashville on Versus in the U.S. The Canucks lead 2-1 of course, and will be looking for a knockdown blow tonight. All three games in the series have been decided by one goal, and two of those have gone to overtime. But instead of looking at this from a “half glass full” perspective and break down tonight’s game, I’d rather bitch about how empty our glasses are now that three of the four series have splattered to the pavement.
The NHL schedule tonight is interesting, as the first games of the night start at 7 p.m., and the last game starts just an hour later, which makes for not a lot of complete television coverage nationally.
First, the Flyers travel to Boston to try to right the ship and chip away at this 0-2 deficit they find themselves in. Plenty of people will make the joke that the Flyers don’t need to start playing until Game 4 against the Bruins, but that’s just not true. Sure, they made the 0-3 comeback last year, and given that hockey is the ultimate “one game at a time” sport, I wouldn’t argue that any team has ZERO chance just by being down 0-3. But these series are a race to four wins, and you can’t be spotting teams a huge head start and expect to escape consistently. Some have pointed to Philly’s shaky goaltending situation as the reason they have not clicked in these playoffs, and I would have to agree, but the reason that the future doesn’t look bright for the Flyers has more to do with the absence of Chris Pronger. He has been ruled out for Game 3, and it is sounding like a longer absence is expected. Philadelphia certainly has the skaters to win games, but the problem is that the Bruins do too. Boston has been on the shortlist in the east all season, and up until the Montreal series, were lauded for their physical play. That play seems to be returning, and it comes in conjunction with Tim Thomas continuing his regular season Vezina form. Add to that the home ice tonight, and the Flyers will have to really hunker down and limit Boston’s shooting space, something they didn’t come close to doing in Game 1, and barely improved in Game 2. One positive note is that Philadelphia is leading shots on goal by 7 per game, but of course that was from inside their own building. They will have to try to keep that average going in order to grab a big road win tonight. Otherwise, they will be looking up from the same 0-3 hole as last year.
Also starting at 7 p.m., and being shown on the NHL Network, is Game 4 of Washington – Tampa Bay. The Lightning lead the series 3-0 after last night’s win, and the defeatist, Boudreau-bashing has begun from the Capitals’ followers. Many are questioning Boudreau’s tactics — specifically his choosing Alex Ovechkin to serve a bench minor for too many men on the ice. But for all the validity of the points made by Washington’s detractors, worrying about the past will do the Caps no good tonight. People will say that they need to win four in a row, and that’s true, but they really just need to win two. If they are able to do that, as we’ve seen as recently as round 1 with Chicago – Vancouver, then the perception will change on the series, and Washington will be clear of the panic mode that 0-3 teams find themselves in. If we accept that Washington is still a good hockey team and should have a decent chance of winning a Game 5 at home, then all they should worry about is tonight. There’s not a lot to say about the actual game, except that Mike Green played another gem of a game last night, if anyone paid attention. Not that I called for his healthy scratching before last game…
At 8:00 p.m. ET tonight, the Red Wings will try to avoid following last year’s blueprint for elimination and set up an actual Game 4 with something hanging in the balance. Last year, after losing both games in San Jose by one goal (just like this year), the Red Wings came home and took a quick 1-0 lead in Game 3. They couldn’t keep up with the faster Sharks though, and ended up giving up an odd man rush in overtime to fall behind 0-3 in the series. Supposedly Detroit is better rested this year, but it hasn’t shown in this series. San Jose has dominated puck possession and scoring opportunities so far, and if Jimmy Howard had played just above average, this series would be a blowout. But Howard has been incredible in giving up only 4 goals in over 126 minutes in this series, despite dealing with defensive breakdowns and quality chances seemingly every two minutes. Detroit keeps saying that they are fine, and that tonight’s home game will be different. But, as I wrote the other day, there is statistical evidence to back up this claim. The Red Wings are asking fans to simply have faith, as the team has won only 2 of the last 12 games against the Sharks.
One thing that we’re supposed to have faith in is the splitting up of Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, in an effort to create two lines that can come close to threatening Sharks goalie Antti Niemi, instead of just one. Maybe it will work, maybe it won’t. But what needs to happen is the rest of the team stepping up and playing Game 3 as if it’s an elimination game. The urgency and execution in Games 1 and 2 were unacceptable. I hope to see a change tonight, if for no other reason than to see an actual series, instead of a moping admission that the Wings have been passed by.
The Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals have been pegged by a good portion of hockey followers to win their respective conferences for the past four years. Of course, Detroit has had this status for much longer, as they have made the playoffs for 20 straight seasons now. But since 2007-08, when the Capitals first qualified for the playoffs in the post-lockout (a.k.a. Ovechkin) era, the Capitals have had a block of support from those predicting the eastern conference.
Both teams found themselves back in the mix in 2011, scoring division titles and sporting an 8-1 record in the first round, collectively. But now the rock is sliding toward each team, and their backs are up against the proverbial hard place. Both teams trail their conference semifinal series two games to none, and both teams have something of a “final go at it” feel to them.
This last ditch effort mentality in Detroit is obvious: the team’s age is frequently cited, and almost as frequently exaggerated. Nick Lidstrom seems likely to head home to Sweden after these playoffs are over, and the general feeling is that if these Red Wings can’t win the west with Lidstrom, they almost certainly can’t do it without him. His $6 million in salary would open up, but not many (if any) general managers would sell Lidstrom for $6 million, because it’s impossible to use that money to fill the gap left by his departure. So while most of the team’s important players are locked up at least through next season, it would be hard to foresee a 2011-12 that would not include Lidstrom on the Red Wings roster, and yet see the team compete for a conference title. Hence, the time is now.
And while Washington’s youth makes it seem like they should have many more chances, this season has to have a little bit of a now-or-never element for head coach Bruce Boudreau. I do not think that Boudreau’s job should be in danger this offseason. Boudreau helped the Capitals pick themselves up after a forgettable first half of this season, and he did so while changing the entire squad’s mindset from free-flowing, lamp lighting offense to accountable and gritty two-way play with an emphasis on defense. And it worked. The Capitals again gained their one seed, but this time showed the focus and mettle to dispatch of a team that had previously torched them on many occasions in the New York Rangers.
But now, we’ve come to the same point. Despite all of Washington’s supposed responsibility and playoff readiness, they still find themselves staring up from an 0-2 hole and having to travel to a division rival’s building, where they will play on two consecutive nights (nice scheduling, NHL). It wouldn’t add much insight to say the Caps need to win one of these next two games, so I won’t bother saying it. The biggest game of the Caps’ season comes Tuesday night, because like any team ever, you don’t want to fall down 0-3. On top of that, a Game 3 win would set the table for the opportunity to even the series and create some doubt in Tampa’s minds, much like Boston did by going into Montreal and taking Games 3 and 4 to even their first round series. And while I think momentum has become extremely overrated in today’s NHL, it is worth considering that most home seeds who host Game 5 of a tied series after falling behind 0-2 end up winning the best of seven. Most of this is probably due to the higher seed being a better team, but perhaps part of it is the deflation of the upstarts blowing their 2-0 golden goose.
In order to win Game 3 and make all of this relevant, Washington needs to avoid panic mode and simply play the responsible, hard-nosed hockey that took them into the east’s top seed. Another move that many people would scoff at, but Boudreau should consider, is making defenseman Mike Green a healthy scratch. Most people are aware of his fantasy value, due to Green personifying the Capitals’ shoot first, watch your goalie try to make saves by himself second mentality of the past few years. But while the team has reinvented itself, Green has not. In Game 2, Green was directly responsible for the overtime goal by neither playing the shot nor the pass in a 2 on 1 against him. This is the kind of defense that doesn’t make it out of college or juniors. On top of this laughable display of “defense,” Green also was the one who kicked in Tampa’s second goal of the game, albeit partly due to bad luck. Green was racing to get back to cancel out the recipient of a centering pass when the puck found his skate and redirected past goalie Michal Neuvirth. That play alone isn’t bad enough to warrant a benching, but when it’s added to Green’s body of work, I think the team would be better off not having to worry about accounting for Green’s lack of ability to pull his own weight defensively. Part of being able to play an aggressive style in the neutral zone and in both ends hinges on the idea that a player has full confidence that his teammates are doing their jobs. I don’t see how the other four players on the ice with Green can have that confidence in him, although nobody would ever admit it.
As bad as going on the road down 0-2 seems, I actually think the Detroit Red Wings are in worse shape coming home with that deficit than the Caps are. Why, you ask? Because San Jose has established themselves recently as simply better than Detroit. Following last year’s 4-1 series victory for San Jose, many in the Detroit camp, including myself, were offering the same stats and excuses. First, the Red Wings were too tired. Well, that kind of plays into who is a better team, wouldn’t you say? Second, the Red Wings won the total goal count of the series by 1, due to their 5-goal victory pinned between four 1-goal defeats. Again, it’s best of seven games, not total goals in 300 minutes, and everybody knows the rules coming in.
This year was supposed to be different. The fresh and rested Red Wings were supposed to show the playoff choking Sharks how it’s really done, and that last year San Jose was just lucky not to get Detroit’s best shot. Well, what’s our excuse now? I’ve got one actually, and it’s simple: San Jose is a little bit better hockey team than Detroit is.
The numbers don’t lie either. In the last 12 games between these two teams, San Jose has won 10 of them. The definition of insanity with the widest acceptance is now “doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.” Well, then I guess all of us Red Wing fans are insane, because we’re seeing the same dispatching of our squad, but we still can’t come out and say why it’s happening. Some blame the refs. Please. Others point to the fact that this series is not in crisis for Detroit yet, because they’ve only lost two road games, and each by a score of only 2-1. I agree, this does point to the fact that Detroit and San Jose are close to each other in ability to win, but Detroit was in the same exact position last year, and laid an egg at home in Game 3 to blow a lead and lose in overtime to more or less end their season. So I’m confused as to why there is so much optimism surrounding the Red Wings this season. It could be that coach Babcock and the veteran leaders have the right level-headed mindset that puts any listener at ease. It could be that we’re buying in to the old adage that a series hasn’t really started until a road team wins a game. And it could be that we still believe that San Jose will “choke” when it counts, or that their fans know nothing of hockey — both of which are based more in humor than reality.
But, it could also be that people still haven’t realized that San Jose is an elite NHL team, and that Detroit is in the unfamiliar position of needing to overachieve in order to prevail in a series. The Red Wings have not been in this position since the 1999 and 2000 playoffs, when they were defeated by superior Colorado Avalanche teams. One could point to the 2007 Anaheim Ducks, and I would lean toward agreeing, but even that year saw Anaheim and Detroit pretty close to evenly matched. The same Wings team did go on to win the Cup in 2008, and almost in 2009.
This is something different. This is the first time in a decade that the Red Wings find themselves banging their heads against the wall two years in a row as road seeds against the same superior opponent. Whether or not the Red Wings realize their inferiority is irrelevant. In fact, it’s probably better that they don’t. But what’s unacceptable is their lazy, we-know-something attitude that they’ve played with in the last two games. This disinterested, “everything’s alright because no matter what happens we still know we’re better and we create so many pretty opportunities that it doesn’t matter if anyone actually buries the puck in the net” mentality is complete nonsense. And if it doesn’t turn around before Game 3, we’re going to see just another example of insanity to go along with a 3-0 San Jose lead. You can’t do the same thing and expect to see different results. Something needs to change. That something is this attitude and mentality. Carry yourselves like professionals — professionals who are at home down 0-2. Play like you need to win. If something changes, maybe the results will too. And they better for the Red Wings’ sake, because 2 of the last 12 isn’t likely to yield the required 4 of the next 5 now.