Thomas Boswell: Capitals Still Struggling Against Hot Goalie in the Playoffs

The Rangers will take a 2-0 series lead with them back to New York after shutting out the Washington Capitals, 1-0, in Game 2 of their first-round playoff series.
By Thomas Boswell
Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Capitals now face the two scariest words in hockey. No, not "dental procedure." The phrase they dread, as they have for 26 years, is "hot goalie."

When the last futile Caps shot had bounced off Henrik Lundqvist in a 1-0 loss to the Rangers yesterday, as Washington fell to a shocking two-game deficit with both losses at home, a burly, frustrated fan in the topmost rows of the Verizon Center interrupted his booing long enough to grab his silver hair in anguish and then slam both hands into the wall behind him.

Decked in Caps paraphernalia from head to toe, the fan should be forgiven his fury. Don't we all share this sense of hot-goalie-in-April-curses-Caps? Isn't it endless déjà vu all over again, puck variety? The Caps come in with high hopes. Maybe not realistic dreams of a Stanley Cup. But of a good long run, a lot of fun and no golf for many weeks.

At some level, Caps fans were not merely cursing the existence of Lundqvist, but channeling all those horrid goalie names from Aprils since 1982: Billy Smith, John Vanbiesbrouck, Kelly Hrudey, Sean Burke, Ron Hextall, Tom Barrasso, Glenn Healy, Ken Wregget, Ron Tugnutt, Johan Hedberg, Nikolai Khabibulin and, last year in Game 7, Martin Biron.

It's hard to believe it's been that many different goalies -- all of them, it seemed at times, standing on their heads -- who have sent the Caps home too early. Some, like Khabibulin, Hextall and Vanbiesbrouck, were special. But most were just good goalies who suddenly got great -- against the Caps.

Nobody understands exactly how it happens. "Is [Lundqvist] 'in our heads?' " said Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau, answering a question. "Well, they all know he's good. But I've never understood that phrase."

Actually, he does. Everybody in the NHL does. The first time I saw it, and couldn't deny it, was the four-overtime Game 7 in the first round in '87 against the Islanders, when Hrudey stopped everything the Caps threw at him until after 1 a.m. in a 3-2 win. If Mike Gartner had fired at an empty net, Hrudey would have spit at it and deflected it away.

Once a goalie starts to believe it's his magic time, once that mixture of reaction, relaxation, confidence and luck starts to roll, it's hard to break. The Caps won their first at Pittsburgh in '96, scoring 11 goals, a stunner in the making; Pittsburgh switched to Wregget; the Caps scored six more in four straight losses. In '03, the Caps started the first round by beating Khabibulin twice on the road. Series in hand, right? Then, he stoned them in an overtime win and got in their heads. The next three losses were 3-1, 2-1 and 2-1.

The list is long. Crumple it up and throw it in the trash. Here's the really bad news: Lundqvist is as good or better than any of those guys, a three-time Vezina Trophy finalist. "He is great goalie," said Alex Ovechkin, the only Cap to beat him, only to see his point-blank shot with 6:01 to play hit the top crossbar. "He makes unbelievable saves, especially in third period.

"My bad. I hit crossbar. [Viktor] Kovlov missed an open net," added Ovechkin, naming a couple of other scoring chances. "It's going to be a hard road trip [to New York]. We just have to score goals. It looks simple. But it's not simple."

This Capitals team is clearly more talented on offense than any of its predecessors and more capable of reversing a series and, in turn, getting into the head of a goalie. That can happen, too. Just never for the Caps. So far.

"We played great -- again," said owner Ted Leonsis. "We had the better pace of play. I thought our rookie goalie [Simeon Varlamov] played fantastic. . . . If we keep this up, we'll break through against Lundqvist."

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