The Capitals’ two-game hole put them in danger of an embarrassingly early exit, but Washington relied on their star sniper, a goaltending change and rattling the opposition to take the series in six.
In the first two games of the opening-round tilt between the Washington Capitals and Columbus Blue Jackets, the series had that certain here-we-go-again feeling for Alex Ovechkin and Co.
The post-lockout era has been rife with post-season disappointment for Washington, who have repeatedly fielded strong teams with incredible potential only to come oh-so-close to getting over the playoff hump before crashing down to earth. And when the Blue Jackets had the Capitals in a two-nothing hole on the strength of back-to-back overtime victories, it sure felt as though it was going to be another year of the same what-went-wrong questions in Washington.
But for the time being, at least, those questions will have to wait, because the Capitals showed some moxie in the back half of their first-round series, marching all the way back from the two-game deficit to rattle off four straight victories and take the series in six games.
So, how did Washington turn a potential early exit into a trip to the second round? There were three key turning points:
PANARIN GOES QUIET, OVECHKIN COMES ALIVE
Alex Ovechkin was the furthest thing from poor in the opening games of the series. He scored twice, fired 14 shots on goal and threw seven hits through Games 1 and 2, both of which were overtime losses for the Capitals. But the headline-grabber wasn’t Ovechkin. Rather, it was the Blue Jackets’ own Russian sniper, Artemi Panarin.
Panarin was a dynamo in the first two games of the series, and he was looking like the player on which the series was going to pivot. His performance had shifted the offensive tide. But through the back half of the first round, Washington keyed in on Panarin and shut him down. Over Games 4, 5 and 6, Panarin mustered just seven shots in nearly 74 minutes of ice time, was knocked around more often and failed to find the scoresheet.
Meanwhile, before heading to Columbus for Game 3, Ovechkin didn’t hide. He stood up and made the bold claim that the series would be heading back to Washington, and Ovechkin even went as far as to say the Capitals would be doing so in a series that was deadlocked at two wins apiece. Then he went out in Game 3 and picked up assists on both of the Capitals’ regulation tallies before assisting on the game-winner and firing home the insurance marker in Game 4. Admittedly, Ovechkin didn’t make an impact on the scoresheet in Washington’s Game 5 victory — he did have seven shots, though — but he made up for that in Game 6 by bagging his fourth and fifth goals of the series to help the Capitals clinch the series.
The thing is, it’s not all that uncommon for Ovechkin to produce when crunch time comes around in a series. In the post-lockout era, Ovechkin has 24 goals and 46 points in the back half of playoff series. That includes seven goals and 15 points in Game 4s, seven goals and 11 points in Game 5s, seven goals and 14 points in Game 6s and three goals and six points in Game 7s. He doesn’t often get credit for coming up clutch, but he’s proven time and again that he can be a big-game player.
We touched on Sergei Bobrovsky’s playoff woes earlier in the series, back when the Capitals had won Game 3 and looked as though they could actually turn the tide in the first round. Reason being is that despite being a two-time Vezina Trophy-winning netminder, despite having a .922 save percentage — the second-best mark — of the 80 netminders to suit up in 100-plus games since the lockout-shortened season, Bobrovsky has had trouble getting the job done in the playoffs.
In fact, entering the series against the Capitals, Bobrovsky had only posted a single-game SP better than his post-2012-13 rate on four occasions in 18 games — and only two of those games had come since he really hit his stride as a No. 1. Granted, there aren’t many goaltenders who have a great time against the Pittsburgh Penguins, who Bobrovksy has had to deal with each of the past two post-seasons, but that doesn’t somehow make his .897 playoff SP from 2012-13 onward any better.
When he put up a .925 SP through the first three games against the Capitals, however, Bobrovsky was looking as though he could be a difference-maker in the series. That was unless the Capitals could break him, at least. And it sure seemed as though the Game 4 loss did exactly that. It wasn’t a terrible performance — Bobrovsky allowed three goals on 32 shots — but he proceeded to allow nine goals on the 56 shots he faced through Games 5 and 6, and that was all she wrote for the Blue Jackets.
THE HOLTBY FACTOR
Let’s get this part out of the way: going with Philipp Gruabauer didn’t turn out to be the right call. No problem wearing that. Heading into the series, everything pointed to Grubauer being the right choice for the series. He had the better regular season numbers, was far better in the second half of the campaign and Grubauer was the hot hand — which, in and of itself, would have been enough for most coaches to ride with the young goalie over the veteran keeper. Frankly, it seemed like a relative no-brainer to go with Grubauer.
But that wasn’t the case. Grubauer was rattled in the opener and couldn’t find his game by the second contest of the series, posting an ugly .837 save percentage — .109 worse than his expected SP, per Corsica. That led to the switch in goal for Washington, and Holtby’s play changed the complexion of the series. Over the final four games of the series, he posted a .935 SP, allowing just nine goals against on 139 shots, and his .924 SP across his four-and-a-half games in the first round was actually slightly better than his expected SP.
It’s not as though there was some great change in play once the goaltenders were swapped, either. Sure, Holtby faced slightly fewer attempts and shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play, but the rate of scoring chances and high-danger chances actually increased once he took the crease. He was just plainly better than Grubauer, and Holtby’s performance in one round, while not perfect, is going to do a lot to make Capitals fans forget about a mediocre-at-best regular season.
This is old hat for Holtby, of course, and maybe this was an instance where history shouldn’t have been ignored. Prior to the start of this post-season, Holtby’s .932 SP in the playoffs was the second-best mark among the 33 goaltenders to play at least 25 post-season games in the post-lockout era, and there wasn’t a single active netminder ahead of him.
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