Where did the Capitals go? They now have the summer to figure out the answer to that, sent packing by the Bruins Sunday night, 3-1, in Game 5 of their first-round playoff series.
The Caps came out with wheels blazing in the series, racing around their home Capital One Arena, hitting bodies and generating shots, looking like they would run the Bruins out of the building and into the offseason.
But it lasted two games. They never came close to generating that kind of energy again for the remainder of the series. The Bruins neutralized them, especially with better puck management between the blue lines, rarely allowing the Caps to impose their speed and size the way they did in Games 1 and 2.
The Bruins, after withstanding the early barrages of the first two games, never got off task and took control of the series on home ice, particularly with the 4-1 win on Friday night at the Garden.
The Caps are one of the few teams in the NHL that employ full-time man-on-man coverage as the basis of their defense. The Bruins increasingly took advantage of it as the series continued.
When David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron each scored in the second period, building a 2-0 lead, the Bruins had scored eight of the last nine goals in the series.
Meanwhile, season slipping away, the Caps never had the seismic pushback a serious Cup contender needs to mount. They did trim Boston’s lead to 2-1 at the start of the third, with Conor Sheary connecting on a second chance, but it ended there.
Keep in mind, the Caps went into the postseason with Vitek Vanecek, not Samsonov, figured as their No. 1 tender. He was hurt 13 minutes into Game 1 when doing the splits in an attempt to stop a Jake DeBrusk shot. Samsonov played well in stretches, but overall showed the inconsistencies expected of a goalie who had never played in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Pastrnak’s goal, for the 1-0 lead only 2:28 into the second, came with the Caps sleeping on defense. Pastrnak, with a feed from newcomer Mike Reilly, first maneuvered easily around Nic Dowd on the left side and then waltzed in on net, left unscathed as he cut left-right across the slot and made a forehand stuff at the right post on Samsonov.
The defense was far too lax for a regular-season game, never mind on a night when facing playoff elimination. It’s a good bet coach Peter Laviolette will change next season to the layered/zone defensive approach universally embraced across the league.
“Breaking down their D-zone coverage,” noted coach Bruce Cassidy. “We know it’s man to man. They’ll collapse at first, but . . . "
With Dowd dusted off on Pastrnak’s approach on the left wide, the Caps backliners were spaced too far apart and not paying attention to picking up the hard-charging Czech winger.
“A bit of a breakdown,” said Cassidy, “and all of a sudden he’s in and gets to wipe across the front of the net. That’s the drawback of playing man to man . . . if you do get beat, there’s not a lot of help, you’re relying on your goaltender.”
The Caps, said Cassidy, have some “long D” — big defenseman. As the series wore on, the Bruins summoned the speed to get in on them and make plays.
“If you get on your horse and you’re willing to attack,” he said, “you can separate, use your one-on-one skills and get a few looks.”
Bergeron’s first goal, also set up on a Reilly feed, came with the Caps again sleeping on defense. The Bruins captain skated freely into prime ice, right down the middle, and whipped in a 45-foot wrister. Not only was it clear wheeling, but it also was a shot that should have been stopped.
Ex-Bruins captain Zdeno Chara picked his spots for exerting his strength against his old team. Case in point: 5:09 of the first period when he leveled Craig Smith with a stiff hit near the Boston bench.
“Trying to send a message,” said Cassidy. “That’s Z.”
When Jarred Tinordi stepped in to object, Chara gave it right back to the big defenseman. Chara never played on the same Bruins team with Smith or Tinordi.
Rask grew sharper as the series played out, just as the entire Bruins team grew stronger. He was at his best at 12:35 of the first when Sheary was fed a backdoor pass near the right post and attempted a sweep stuff. The alert Rask tracked the play from pass to shot and kept the score at 0-0. He stopped 40 of 41 on the night, and finished the series with a .941 save percentage and 1.81 goals again mark.
“It makes it easier for everybody when you see your goalie completely under control,” said Cassidy. “It looks like they’re not going to get a pea by him for the most part.”
Details. Details. Details. The Bruins, mainly because of Bergeron, held the edge in faceoff wins in Games 1, 2 and 4. They opened with the same sort of efficiency Sunday night, winning 11 of 19 drops in the first period. The Caps were able to do a much better job over the final 30 minutes, but they were not able to get back even on the scoreboard. The Bruins won 54 percent of the draws over five games. Charlie McAvoy, with five power-play assists over the first four games, again manned the point on the No. 1 power-play unit, typically with forward David Krejci aiding him along the blue line – with the big line of Bergeron, Pastrnak and Brad Marchand up front. It’s a significant growth ring for McAvoy, who rarely manned the point on the first unit during the regular season. To be considered a true No. 1 defenseman, he’ll have to grow that role. If he does, he can be among the game’s premier defensemen.
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at email@example.com.