I will often think back to the Rangers opening round series in the 2007 playoffs versus Atlanta and wonder what, if anything, would have changed if the Thrashers had made a different goalie decision in Game 3 than the one they ended up making. I thought about it a few times leading up to tonight's game 3 at the Garden. Different opponent, somewhat similar circumstances.
If you don't remember, Game 1 in Atlanta was the Sean Avery instigator affair that ended in Ilya Kovalchuk chasing - literally chasing - Sean Avery around the ice and getting ejected. Kari Lehtonen played a less than crisp game in the Atlanta loss.
For Game 2 in Atlanta, Bob Hartley went with veteran Johan Hedberg and it was a very close one goal game, the deciding goal coming off an odd bank play by Avery in fact.
When down 0-2 heading into the Garden, Hartley had a choice to make. He could go back to his regular guy in Lehtonen, or he can stick with his very steady "backup" who played a close, one goal game.
He chose to go back to Lehtonen.
The Rangers won Game 3, 7-0.
They went on to win the series in four.
Jump ahead to 2009. The Rangers and Capitals played a closer game than did the Thrashers and Rangers in 2009. Avery's affects were perhaps more understated. But Jose Theodore was not sharp. He, while not the only one at fault, shouldered much of the blame for yeilding four goals on 21 shots.
Game 2 in Washington saw Bruce Boudreau go to an untested rookie goalie in Simeon Varlamov. (Granted, it was the rookie replacing the "veteran" in this case, but if you continue to follow me...). Varlamov plays very well and lets in only one goal. Another one goal margin. Another solid goalie performance.
When down 0-2 heading into the Garden, Boudreau had a choice to make. He could go back to Jose, his veteran guy whose been in the playoffs before, or he can stick with this young kid that stepped up and played a close, 1-0 game.
He chose to stick with Varlamov.
The Capitals won Game 3, 4-0.
The series - well, the series is still TBD.
Does this goalie decision prove to be THE decision off this playoff series? It is really too early to tell. But it's interesting to me. Interesting because there are so many details that I've forgotten about certain years and certain playoff series. And yet I remember the 2007 opening round like yesterday, thinking how much I really respect and like Bob Hartley, but how I think he got it wrong that day in Game 3. And how I wonder if that one key decision in goal would have made any difference in the outcome.
Other game notes...
Pierre Maguire was on the radio today - either on HTM or Team990; I honestly do not remember - and he spoke about how the Capitals were playing like a bunch of talented individuals and the Rangers were playing like a team. I usually either completely agree with Maguire or completely disagree with him; there is often no in between. Today, I agreed with him.
That struck me if only for the fact that the Rangers, most of this season, were not anything resembling a team, and if they went in the same direction, it was mostly the direction of non-cohesive disillusionment, with a few, well-detailed exceptions.
So, I asked myself, were the Rangers really playing so much more as a team?
Well they were.
Until tonight, that is.
The Capitals and their undisputed leader - Alex Ovechkin - finally seemed to get their heads around the team game. Ovechkin took 13 shots in game one alone and half that in game two, and still couldn't score.
In game three, he realized he didn't need to.
It was enough if he just set up his teammates to score. And he did, to his credit and his team's benefit.
The Capitals looked very much the team tonight. The Rangers did not. Simple as that.
The Rangers were very undisciplined, taking penalty after penalty. And, what's more, they failed to capitalize on the ones the Capitals took. How many of Avery's were deserved, I'd like to take a second look. The punch to the face warranted a rough, and high-sticks are usually high-sticks. I'd like to take another look at the goalie interference - the unofficial Sean Avery penalty - and the hooking before I judge those. Regardless, too much time in the box means that the Rangers lost whatever rhythm they held, for the game's first five minutes.
Game 3 was a very different story, indeed.
As for the goalie decision of 2009, it paid off. Varlamov was not tested a whole lot to start, but he did what he had to do and made 33 saves in earning his first career shutout.
And as for Sean Avery trying to yap at him? Apparently it phased him not at all.
Goalie Decision Game 3, 2009 - score one for Bruce Boudreau.
Hopefully the Rangers loss will let them learn what worked for them, what didn't, and let them move forward with the next goal of winning game four. True, the Capitals will now be even more hungry, and that is a risk you take in letting a team get halfway back in a series. Of course, the best thing would be for them to have won today and really put a reeling Washington on their heals. That didn't happen.
However, one more solid effort at the Garden Wednesday, and they would have the chance to wrap up the series in Washington on Friday.
How they come out and maintain on Wednesday will show us, and them, whether they can compete in this series to win, or whether they will let Washington get in their heads.
I hope, prediction gladly placed aside, it's the former.