After what seemed like weeks of waiting – ever since the Olympics were over, really – the Washington Capitals finally enter the NHL postseason. First opponent in the opening salvos of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals?
The Montreal Canadiens.
The Caps desperately want to get the right skate forward this year; after last year’s rough start dropping the first two games at home against the Rangers, it’s something the team is aching to move past. And by all accounts from various team sources the last couple of days, they’re not only aware of it, they’re chomping at the bit to roll.
Despite the Habs’ recent struggles, however, the Caps cannot enter the series tomorrow taking Montreal for granted. True, the Habs enter the postseason after only notching three wins in their final 11 games. And true, forward Michael Cammalleri hasn’t been nearly as effective in his first nine games after knee surgery, nor has the netminder situation been anything spectacular. No team enters the NHL’s “second season” not wanting the prize at the end of the two-month campaign.
Let’s not kid around – both of these teams want the Stanley Cup. Montreal, to start its next century off right after last year’s dismal failure to celebrate their 100 years in style. Washington, to finally grab the golden ring of hockey that has been oh-so-close only a handful of times in its young (relative to Montreal) hockey existence.
So let’s look over the keys to Round One, starting here in the District on Thursday at 7 p.m.
Yes, yes, Ovechkin goes without saying. So we’ll move beyond him and look at the rest of the forward depth chart. Boasting seven forwards who scored over 20 goals this season (and defenseman Mike Green with 19), the Caps have the most potent and high-scoring offense in the league. The Caps scored 101 more goals (318) this season than Montreal (217) – and the Caps’ top five forwards (Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble) have a combined total of a whopping 406 points. Montreal’s top five (Tomas Plekanec, Scott Gomez, Mike Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn), by comparison, combined for 258. Oh, and the Caps lead the NHL with 3.82 goals per game – Montreal sits at 26th with 2.56. When you look at the numbers, the gap is Grand Canyon wide.
Depth isn’t a problem. I asked ESPN’s John Buccigross what, if anything, the Caps might have as a weakness the Habs could exploit. “The Caps need to get close to the net. Not all goals are pretty,” he replied. “Think ugly. That’s why getting Mike Knuble was such a smart sign.” Knuble’s presence planted in front of either Jaroslav Halak or Carey Price may make the difference in a close game by breaking it wide open with a well-placed stick.
“The Caps just need to stay healthy,” said Bucci. “No team in the East can compete with their goalscoring.” Fortunately the loss of one or two forwards to injury won’t impact the team as much as it would Montreal.
Caps’ defenseman Mike Green leads a blue line crew that is more offensively-oriented than Montreal. With secondary offensive weapons like Green, Tom Poti, Joe Corvo, and Jeff Schultz on the ice, there is a constant threat of the puck crossing the goal line. With such an offensively-minded defense corps, defending goalies Jose Theodore and Semyon Varlamov becomes a team effort. Backchecking is key, says Bucci. “The forwards have to think backcheck at certain times. The Capitals will go as far as their forwards’ defensive play lets them.” While defense was a huge concern by many experts, fans, and armchair rink rats, the Caps have done tremendous work in strengthening their blue line play. But compared to Montreal’s hulking shutdown artists Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik, and Jaroslav Spacek, the Caps don’t have the luxury of clamping down on defense when they grab the lead.
“The Caps are terrible in their own end at the end of games. They need to think calmly, quickly, and with conviction,” says Bucci. Maintaining that drive is important and has served the Caps in fits and starts through the regular season. Witness the numerous games they came from behind in the third period to win or force overtime. Consistency is key.
One minor storyline of this round is of Caps’ goalie Jose Theodore facing off against his old team. Named the starter by Coach Bruce Boudreau yesterday, Theodore is facing the ghosts of his failed start in last year’s playoff run (and other playoff failures) and the looming end of his contract here. Theodore’s fighting not only to redeem his name but also a renewed contract with the Capitals. Derided as “Three-or-more” early on in the season, Theodore posted a 2.81 GAA and a .911 save percentage for the year in large part thanks to a solid undefeated streak the last half of the season. Still, Theodore is known to let in some soft goals from time to time but fortunately the squad in front of him is adept at scoring more than their opponents can sneak past him.
Washington’s power play tops the league with a whopping 25.2% efficiency. Montreal was second with 21.8%. But neither team excels at the penalty kill. The Caps have the league’s 6th-worst PK unit (78.8%); the Habs sat near the middle with 83% success.
Behind the bench, Bruce Boudreau is now a veteran playoff coach who plays the hunches with success. He knows his team inside and out and has done great work mixing up the lines as needed. Opposite him, Montreal coach Jacques Martin hasn’t had much playoff success in the NHL, largely due to a more risk-aversion style of coaching. Whether Martin can adapt to the Caps’ swings in play will largely affect how long the series ends up going.
So what’s the key intangible that will push the Caps over the top in the series – and, most likely, in their quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup? “The Capitals have to score to win. That is how they are constructed. They have to think that way. And they have to play like their lives are on the line in these games,” said Bucci. “We all know that this is not the case, but teams who play like this are the teams that win. That is the great question with the Caps. Will they ‘pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success’ of the Washington Capitals?”
It’s an answer worth waiting to see.
Prediction: Washington in five.