Arts & Entertainment

Picking Splinters: Caps’ Crunch Time

Clad in red, rocking Mohawks and still buzzing about last Friday’s fantastic finish, one in which likely MVP Alex Ovechkin stole a Game One win off the sticks of the Philadelphia Flyers, the rejuvenated Caps fans were eager to see their equally reborn team continue their spate of success on Sunday.

Enlivened by an energy that sent them sprinting up the stairs of the Metro exit, they streamed into the Verizon Center and watched as their Capitals swarmed the Flyers for the first five minutes, dominating play and creating power play opportunities … only to end the period down 2-0.

A pair of mental lapses from the young, eager and excited Capitals allowed a savvy Flyer squad to grab the lead and then ugly-up the remainder of the game in their own zone to escape with a win.

Tuesday was no better for the Caps, who may shortly find their season ended by their own mistakes. A giveaway by defenseman Milan Jurcina allowed the Flyers to expand a one-goal lead to a two-goal cushion. As the Caps rallied late in the third to draw the score to 4-3, a mind-boggling blue-line decision by Shaone Morrisonn allowed the Flyers’ Mike Richards to steal the puck and storm the crease, earning a penalty shot after being tripped by the Caps’ Mike Green.  Game over.

Consecutive duds are an anomaly for the Caps. Since Boudreau has assumed the head coaching duties in late November, the Caps have only lost consecutive games seven times. Now they must halt this skid in a hurry or they’ll be sent home by the middle of the weekend.

The Flyers have dictated the game to the Caps for nearly the entirety of the series. They’ve planted players in front of goaltender Cristobal Huet, they’ve outworked the Caps for loose pucks and they’ve taken advantage of every opportunity the Caps have given them by way of ill-timed turnovers.

By comparison, the Caps have seemed lethargic at times. One vignette on Sunday perfectly illustrated the club’s placid demeanor. Trailing 2-0 late in the first period, the Caps set up on the power play, their fourth of the game’s opening 20 minutes. A nice give-and-go move by Nicklas Backstrom resulted in a hard shot on Flyers goalie Martin Biron. Biron couldn’t control the rebound, nor could the three Flyers defenders  who stood around the loose puck tipping it to one another. No one in a Capitals jersey even flinched while the puck rattled around right in front of the crease. After that scene, the 2-0 outcome was hardly surprising.

It was an undying energy and grit that helped turn the Caps’ movie-script ending to the regular season from reel to real. True, Ovechkin scored 11 goals over the last 12 games, but equally important were the contributions of Brooks Laich (four goals over that period) or Matt Cooke. Cooke, along with trade deadline acquisitions Cristobal Huet and Sergei Fedorov, was named a star of the game in the Caps’ biggest contest of the year against the Hurricanes on April 1. Washington needs to rediscover that hard-working edge and to do so, they can start small.

Daniel Briere has perfectly embodied the Flyers’ game plan these first three contests. He’s pesky, he’s bothersome and he’s highly skilled when given a scoring opportunity. What’s more, he’s willing to make the sacrifice to win. On Tuesday, Briere, all five-foot-nothing of him, repeatedly screened Huet in front of the Caps’ net, once leading to a Flyers goal. The guy is a pixie on the ice, and someone in a Caps’ sweater needs to put him on his butt.

In a truly just world, Boudreau would be able to point to Briere, say something simple to hulking enforcer Donald Brashear, like “I’ll see you in five minutes,” and a few moments later a right hook would put the Flyers’ pest in his place. But Briere is too smart for that. That’s not his game. He’d never fight someone on the level. Last season, when Ovechkin was getting the better of Briere with body checks, Briere retaliated by spearing Ovechkin in the groin.

Briere’s a bother. He won’t look you in the eye when he’s messing with you. Instead, he’ll jostle the helmet of Huet when his back is turned. Kind of makes you want to take a two-minute retaliatory minor penalty just thinking about it, eh?

The Caps can’t do that. They have to shrug off the cheap shots, put him on the ice when he parks himself in front of Huet and pray that at some point that Cooke can give Briere his comeuppance with an open-ice body check. But they also need to learn from him.

Briere can be one of the prettiest playmakers in the league, but in the playoffs he has been willing to do whatever it takes to win and his energy level has been phenomenal. He’s exactly what the Caps should aspire to in Game Four tonight.

At the end of the regular season, the Caps made Lazarus look like a light sleeper, storming back from the dead as they did. The grit, the guts, the electricity was unmatched by any team in the league this season. Washington’s raucous home crowd will help in Game Five, but to make that one matter, the Caps will have to find their own spark tonight.

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