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Last year at this time, the Washington Capitals were contemplating what went wrong after the Tampa Bay Lightning swept them right out of the conference semifinals. They vowed to get better, be more responsible, and play a better two-way system.
Here we are a year later, and the Caps lost (again) in the conference semifinals. They played better defense, but their offense was clearly weakened. Last year, they averaged 2.56 goals per game over nine playoff games, slightly better than the 2.07 goals per game they averaged in 14 games this postseason. Additionally, they gave up 2.67 goals per game in the playoffs last year, and that number dropped to 2.14 goals per game this time around. (This, of course, was a huge drop from the 3.14 goals per game they averaged during the 2010 playoffs, but then again, they lost in the first round that year.)
This is the third article in a series looking at the Toronto Maple Leafs organizational depth by position. Thus far I have completed my review of goalies and defensemen and next up will be a look at the organizational depth at the center ice position. Since most forwards can play multiple positions and often do throughout a season, I will do my best to categorize players as center, right wing or left wing. For example, I am not including Nazem Kadri in the center evaluation. Although Kadri plays center with the AHL Toronto Marlies, he has almost been exclusively a winger in his stints with the Maple Leafs which suggests that he will be a winger at the NHL level.
Center’s on 2011-12 roster:
What an up-and-down season for the Washington Capitals. After changing coaches, not making moves at the trading deadline, pretty much (unofficially) putting a freeze on contract extensions and barely making the playoffs, the Caps eliminated the defending champion Boston Bruins in the first round before bowing out to the New York Rangers in last night’s game seven of the conference semifinals.
After undergoing an identity transplant this season, the team managed to right the ship for the playoffs. — sorta. Their biggest find was Braden Holtby, who entered the playoffs with no postseason experience and only 21 regular-season games played, but ended with a 1.95 goals against average (sixth-best in the league), a .935 save percentage (also sixth) and all seven of the Caps’ wins, not to mention constant lauding by myriad members of the national media.
Although the Eastern Conference Finals match-up hasn’t been set yet, it’s time to say goodbye (belatedly) to the Philadelphia Flyers, who proved that match-ups mean everything. Against the Pittsburgh Penguins, the Flyers scored a league-high 30 goals and averaged 27.5 shots per game. But, in five games against the Devils, they scored just 11 goals, and after getting 36 shots in winning Game 1, they averaged just 24.5 shots per game over the final four games. (S/t NHL.com for the stats.)
Overall, the Flyers averaged 3.73 goals per game during the playoffs, but just 2.2 against the Devils (after averaging five per game against the Penguins) — and scored fewer goals (seven) combined over the course of the series’ final four games (all losses) than they did in both game two and three against the Penguins, when they scored eight goals per game.
The Ottawa Senators ended the 2010-11 season in 13th place in the Eastern Conference and 26th place overall in the NHL and looked to be on track for a painful rebuild. As they entered this past season they were picked by many analysts to be battling for the first overall pick, not the playoffs. Well Brian Murray, Eugene Melnyk and the rest of the Senators organization proved everyone wrong by making the playoffs and they were one win away from eliminating the first place NY Rangers in their first round playoff series.
Now that the Toronto Marlies are one win away from the Western Conference Finals in the Calder Cup playoffs, many people are beginning to draw comparisons between last season’s Ottawa Senators and the Toronto Maple Leafs. But is this a fair comparison?
The theme of the 2012 Western Conference finals has to be “out with the old; in with the new.” Anybody who questions that mantra need only to look up the combined conference finals berths in the (relatively short) histories of the Phoenix Coyotes and Los Angeles Kings. That total would be one — achieved by the 1993 Kings starring Wayne Gretzky. But that was so long ago that the team the Kings defeated in the conference finals, the Toronto Maple Leafs, are now in the Eastern Conference. (The Kings lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the great Patrick Roy and the Montreal Canadiens in five games.) This year, in fact, marks the first time in the 15 seasons the Coyotes have spent in Phoenix that they actually won a playoff series. (As the Winnipeg Jets, the franchise won three World Hockey Association titles but, since joining the NHL for the 1979-80 season, only won two playoff series before moving to Phoenix — and never reached the Campbell/Western Conference finals.
OK, enough history… these two teams are really good. They’re the top two defensive teams in the playoffs (in terms of goals allowed per game) and two of the best on the penalty kill. The Kings are slightly better offensively (averaging three goals per game, compared to the Coyotes’ 2.64), but have a much worse power play (8.5 percent effective, compared to 16.1 percent for Phoenix).
In 12 postseason games — and most likely throughout the entire 2011-12 season — the Washington Capitals have swayed between playing brilliantly and being mistake-prone. These emotional and physical swings can happen from one period to the next, or even in the bat of an eyelash.
Last night’s 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers brought the Caps’ postseason record to 6-6. They’ve scored 26 goals and allowed 27. They eliminated the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in seven games and were this close to being up three games to two on the top-seeded Rangers. In a flash, New York received a four-minute power play (on a double-minor to Joel Ward), scored two goals in less than two minutes of elapsed game time (over the end of regulation and the start of overtime) and snatched a victory away from the Caps.
Even so, many would argue that the Caps had no business even being that close. The Rangers out shot them, 38-18 overall and 17-4 in the first period. New York dominated play for most of the game and, even though they failed to unleash a shot on three power plays, the Rangers still converted when it mattered most. The Caps’ offense seems to be improving, but they still couldn’t get a shot on goal during several odd-man rushes last night.
I will be posting a series of articles looking at the Toronto Maple Leafs organizational depth by position. I started the series last week with goaltenders and I am continuing from the net out and going with defensemen next.
Defensemen on 2011-12 roster:
Cody Franson (RFA)
I will be posting a series of articles looking at the Toronto Maple Leafs organizational depth by position. Brian Burke says that he likes to build his teams from the net out so that is where I will be starting.
Goalies on 2011-12 roster:
Jonas Gustavsson (UFA)
Goaltending was a major issue for the Toronto Maple Leafs in 2011-12. The Maple Leafs signed James Reimer to a 3 year deal after a great stint with the big club in 2010-11 and Reimer looked to be the answer in goal for the Leafs. However, he struggled after suffering a concussion early in the season and never was able to get back on track. Gustavsson looked very good at times this past season but consistency continues to be his biggest issue. As he heads into unrestricted free agency we can be fairly certain that he won’t be back with the Maple Leafs for the 2012-13 season.
There is no doubt that the goaltender is the single most influential player on any hockey team and rivals that of a quarterback in football for how much impact the position has on the game. Although having good goaltending does not guarantee success, not having it is a recipe for failure.
The Toronto Maple Leafs have been a prime example of this over a seven year stretch in which they have not made the playoffs. Some will argue that the Maple Leafs just haven’t iced a good enough team to finish in the top eight in the Eastern Conference, which is a debatable point. What is not debatable is how inconsistent and below average their goaltending has been over that time period.
When James Reimer jumped into the Maple Leaf goal in the 2010-11 NHL season and posted an impressive 20-10-5 record with a 2.60 goals against average and a .921 save percentage it looked like the Maple Leafs finally had there answer in goal. Reimer looked so good in that he was rewarded with a 3 year deal at $1.8 million per season. Unfortunately Reimer suffered a concussion early in the season and never appeared to recover.
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