NHL Playoffs 2011: Washington Capitals Again in a Must-Win Situation

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NHL Playoffs 2011: Washington Capitals Again in a Must-Win Situation
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It is funny what a franchise's playoff history forces you to say and write. In this case, tonight's Game 4 against the New York Rangers, is a "must-win" for the Washington Capitals.

After the last three years, I believed that Games 1 and 2 were “must-wins" for the Capitals and their psyche. Having done just that, they have now earned the right to be in the same exact position for Game 4.

Welcome to the Stanley Cup Playoffs, especially in the curious case of the Washington Capitals.

Five times in a best-of-seven playoff series, the Washington Capitals have led a playoff series 2-0. Four times, they blew it.

Not just this version of the Capitals but this is a franchise hex, curse or whatever you want to call this organization's playoff futility.

What do Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Mike Green, Peter Bondra, Dale Hunter, Sylvain Cote, Joe Juneau and Olaf Klozig all have in common?

They were all significant parts of Capital playoff teams that blew 2-0 and 3-1 series leads in back-to-back seasons. Not this year you say, things are different. This team was tore down and rebuilt for just this very instance.

Let us hope not and that is exactly why tonight is a must win. It would be good for this revamped playoff specific version of the Washington Capitals to have a little margin for error.

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Olaf Kolzig
According to the Elias Sports Bureau, the team that wins Game 4 in a best-of-seven series goes on to win their series 78 percent of the time. The Capitals have, as they always seem to do when playoffs statistics are involved, bucked that trend over their history.

Washington is 15-11 in Game 4 of a best-of-seven series. They have won just nine (60 percent) of those series. Therefore, you see, this franchise is not the norm when it comes to the playoffs. Hence my worries.

Winning tonight may have gotten a little tougher as it has been reported by several hockey outlets including NHL.com and the Washington Post that Caps forward Mike Knuble is likely to miss Game 4 with an injured hand.

Knuble was struck on the hand by the puck in Game 3. Replay footage from Game 3 shows Knuble taking off his glove to examine his right hand after scoring a goal, the same shift where he appeared to have been struck in the hand by a shot from Mike Green.

No need to panic, right! The Capitals know what is at stake for them tonight, don’t they?

Of course they do, these quotes were taken from a recent NHL.com story, and just so you know, you could pretty much put any Caps players’ name from any era in which a Caps team lost a playoff game after being ahead in the series. 

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Jason Chimera may start in place of Mike Knuble
"We're fine. We have a lot of confidence in here," Jason Chimera said after an optional practice at Kettler Capitals Iceplex. "It was a bad loss, but you have to move on. You have to forget about it quickly in the playoffs—more so than in the regular season. We're still in good shape so guys just have to keep it going."

Yes Jason Chimera, you and your teammates must quickly forget about losing but please do not forget how you lost. The loss on Sunday conjured up thoughts of the way we lost in seven games last season to the Canadiens and the year before to the Penguins.

The Caps committed more penalties on Sunday than they had in 21 previous post-season games. They failed to keep the area in front of their rookie goalie clear as Brandon Dubinsky walked right in front to score to game winner.

Aside from all of us watching at home on NBC, Alex Ovechkin, Scott Hannan, Nicklas Backstrom and Karl Alzner watched from right in front of Neuvirth as Dubinsky scored. That is the kind of play, or lack of play that makes me and wound tight Caps fans say, here we go again.

Anyone seen Alexander Semin since his awesome Game 1 performance? Yes, he led the Caps with six shots in game three but according to the shot chart, just two were from 15 feet or less. The rest were from 25, 39, 46 and 74 feet. His corner and board play was not as prevalent as it was in the previous two games. 

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No reasonable Caps fan thought we were going to sweep the Rangers anyway. We knew this was going to be a tough series.

However, it does not make me feel better to hear a Caps player echo those sentiments. Here is Matt Bradley from the same NHL.com story:

"I don't think anyone thought we were going to sweep every series. We're going to lose games in the playoffs, and I think for us it is just a matter of getting back to that work ethic and good defensive play we had the first two games and we'll be fine'."

Bradley continued, "We're not going to dwell on the last game. They played really well and they deserved to win. It is up to us now to turn the tide."

I hope the Caps have thought (not dwell) a lot about their Game 3 loss. I even hope they went back and watched film of it, two or three times.

The team that won on Sunday looked like the Washington Capitals we have grown to know and love over the last two months. The Rangers beat the Capitals at their own game and that is cause for concern for me.

For the first time in the series, the Rangers did the little things a lot better than did Washington. The Blueshirts soundly out-hit the Capitals 41-29 and won 10 more faceoffs. The Capitals must get back to basics.

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The Caps fourth line was good all year but it was the Rangers fourth line, with 10 hits, that was allowed to set the tone on Sunday. They not the Caps grinders made the difference.

Even Michael Neuvirth, who with a lot of help from his defense has been stellar in the series, finally gave up the "soft goal" we all feared he would allow at some point.

The feared result of allowing such a goal was realized in the outcome of the game. Maybe the Caps would have lost on a goal that Neuvirth had no chance at stopping but we will never know because he still has problems covering up the posts from time-to-time.

I do feel the Caps have a better chance of winning Game 4 than they do of losing. Washington is still the better team with the better players.

The Rangers finally caught some breaks on Sunday. The Capitals were called for eight penalties, the most in their past 21 postseason games and looked tired as a result late in the game.

They were chasing the Rangers around after Mike Knuble scored the game-tying goal for the Caps late in the third period. The proof is no clearer than when you watch the above-mentioned players standing around for Dubinsky’s game-winning goal.

Please do not misunderstand this piece. This is not a negative article about how the Capitals are going to blow this, in fact, I would point out that the Capitals have done everything in the series to almost perfection.

If the Capitals lose tonight, will they lose the series

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They have won the right games and lost the right game. They are playing sound defensive playoff type hockey with great goaltending and timely goal scoring.

Even their struggling power play has produced more goals in three games (two) than it did in seven games (one) during last year's first round. Even with the Game 3 setback, the Caps seem to be in control.

Caps defenseman Karl Alzner thinks things are just fine and told NHL.com:

"We're not panicking at all. Game 4 is huge. If you have home ice advantage, you don't need to steal a game on the road but you always want to, so we want to take the game to them in their rink and if we do that, it's going to be good for us in the end. The game where you can get a little bit of a stranglehold is the one you want to get."

Tonight is that game.

Jason Arnott, the most crucial of the trade deadline acquisitions, is doing exactly what he was brought to Washington to do. Arnott has provided veteran leadership on the ice, on the bench and in the locker room during the playoffs.

The Rangers needed to play their best game to beat Washington on Sunday and that is exactly what they did. The Capitals even get two whole days off between Game 3 and Game 4, and will again between Games 4 and 5.

With the physicality of the series, I think this benefits the hockey team with the better skilled players and that team, in this series, is the Washington Capitals.

Washington seemed to figure out that crashing the net will allow them better scoring chances as both goals came from just outside Henrik Lundqvist' crease on Sunday. The Caps will not consistently beat Henrik Lundqvist from 15 feet or beyond, they can consistently beat him from six to 10 feet.

Many will say true the Capitals may be the better team but how many times have the Caps been the higher seed and lost a playoff series?  This is the Stanley Cup Playoffs and if the Capitals playoff past has taught us anything, it is that anything can happen.

This series will not be a case where the home team wins every game. I will go as far to say that the first team to win a game on enemy ice will probably win this series.

Let me say this one more time, that game for the Washington Capitals is tonight.  

Even though winning in five games and at the Verizon would be the ideal situation, it is a good bet that the Capitals will have to come back to New York and win this series.

I say that because when has this franchise ever done been or done the ideal thing in the playoffs. It has never been easy and that is why tonight is a must win.

There must be room for error and a 3-1 series lead provides that room. Let us hope that’s all it is and not another setup for heartbreak. Let’s Go Caps!

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