The biggest news of the day at Kettler Iceplex was the absence of Capitals center Nicklas Backstrom, who finished fourth overall in scoring in the NHL in 2009-10 (33 goals, 68 assists). After today’s practice, the first of two in preparation for the Montreal Canadiens, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau told a large throng of media that #19 was “not feeling well…he is questionable..he is sick.” Clearly being without the super Swedish center, who sometimes I think really does have eyes in the back of his head, for game one would be a huge blow to Washington but Nicky is expected to be back on the ice for practice on Wednesday.
The other significant development was that Boudreau has named Jose Theodore his starting goaltender for the playoff opener and he made a point of saying that “there is no short leash” this post season because he has played at a high level since January (except for a two game blip in late March). Last year, the 2002 MVP struggled in his last ten games so the Washington coach was already prepared to make a switch if Jose struggled in game one against New York, which he did. Also, the 2007-08 Jack Adams Award winner revealed that he had told #60 last week about his decision but he delayed the public announcement to “keep everyone on their toes.” The plan to go with Theodore is not a surprise to many but some wonder if playing against his old team, especially in games three and four, will be a distraction to the goaltender. Boudreau didn’t think playing at the Bell Centre, especially when the Habs fans start chanting his name, will be much of an issue.
“I don’t think it will effect him, he should be excited to play there. He’s been a guy from the beginning that has said ‘last year is last year, if I have to prove myself, I’ve proved myself my whole life’ and he’s gonna prove himself again and he did it in the face of a lot of adversity this year. So I give him full credit for everything he’s done. I think he’ll do fine and he’ll be ready. We like the song, they can sign it all they want, they are always in unison and it’s really good,” said Boudreau on Theodore and the Montreal fans.
In any playoff series, special teams are likely to play a role in the outcome. The Capitals had the NHL’s number one power play in the regular season at 25.2% but the Habs were second overall at 21.8%. On the penalty kill, Washington was 25th in the league at 78.8% so staying out of the box will be important for the Caps. The Capitals successfully killed of 16 of the last 18 penalties of the regular season so they go in with a hot streak on the PK. The Canadiens have defenseman Andrei Markov on the blue line, who has a hammer of a shot, and Mike Cammalleri has proven to be dangerous in the right wing circle with the one timer, as well. Thus the Caps have their work cut out for themselves when they are shorthanded.
“They work together and they have a lot of good skill. Our penalty kill is going to have to be better. I think it is going to be important for us to stay out of the box, as well. We’ll go over the video over the next couple of days and make sure we have a good game plan going in,” started forward Boyd Gordon, who said he is feeling better and better each day after suffering from back issues during stretches of the regular season.
“They got a couple of guys that can bring it [from the point]. As a unit we have to do a better job of blocking shots, getting sticks in lanes, so it is important to keep them to the outside as much as possible and limit their chances,” finished #15 on what Washington needs to do to slow down the Montreal power play.
The Capitals are certainly a better team heading into this year’s post season than the previous two for several reasons. Clearly the biggest change is the experience factor as nearly every player on the roster has played in the Stanley Cup playoffs (rookie defenseman John Carlson has not but he has plenty of big game starts in his career to include the AHL Calder Cup Finals in 2009 with Hershey and the 2010 World Junior Gold Medal game with Team USA). Second, the major moves GM George McPhee made since last summer, the free agent signings of forwards Mike Knuble and Brendan Morrison and the trades for Jason Chimera, Scott Walker, Eric Belanger, and Joe Corvo have added talent and depth. Finally, one of their most important players, Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green, is healthier and much more confident than he was at this time last season. #52 went into last year’s post season with an illness and then suffered a shoulder injury in the Rangers series. The Calgary native was roundly criticized for his subpar playoff performance and I personally believe some of that cost him a position on Team Canada for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games that were held in Vancouver. Green’s play this season, especially down the stretch when he was dominant at both ends of the rink, bodes well for the Capitals going forward.
“Yeah, it’s night and I day. I feel like 150% compared to even 100%, that is a good feeling going into this time of the season. You know last year after the game against Pittsburgh, game seven, you wait for an opportunity like this again and it couldn’t come quick enough. So I’m excited,” started Green when asked how he was feeling healthwise.
“I can’t even describe it. Just the way I know I how I felt last year to where I am now. Confidence is everything. Right now we are playing well as a team and that builds confidence individually. So I just can’t wait for that first game,” added #52, who seems to be like a kid in the candy store heading into the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
In this week’s Sporting News NHL Playoff Preview, Craig Custance had the following quote from Nicklas Lidstrom of the Detroit Red Wings involving the tactical challenges involved in a playoff series:
“You know the other team’s tendencies and what they’re trying to do. It’s more of a battle when you know how they’re playing and they know how you are playing. Then it comes down to battling hard and competing really hard.”
The reason I bring that quote up is because on the first day of training camp last September Caps forward Brooks Laich told me the reason the Penguins won the Stanley Cup last year was because they “stuck to their system in every game, no matter what the score.” I asked Laich about that statement again today and if he felt that the way Washington played in the regular season was a validation that they were indeed sticking to their system.
”Yeah, but I still think we can do a better job. To win it we still have to do a better job and play a more structured game. We play the way we play, we are not gonna go into the playoffs trying to flip a switch and play a different way. We’ve been successful all year because of how we play, how we attack, we play downhill hockey. Some people might call it aggressive but we call it pressure hockey and I think it is very tough to play against. So Pittsburgh’s guns last year, their top guys were their top guys, and they played the way they could within the team structure. Our guys, I think, have done a fantastic job this year and we are a better team than we were last year. Hopefully we’ll prove that in the playoffs,” said #21, assessing the regular season and the way the Capitals play.
“I thought lately we’ve done a better job of limiting turnovers. What I am talking about is playing air tight without the puck. I’m talking about playing pressure defense in the neutral zone where we don’t give them gaps to skate with the puck. In the defensive zone, being on our checks, moving our legs and sealing guys into the boards. Everybody stops and starts, no circles. That’s what I’m talking about by playing pressure hockey. That puts teams back on their heels and once they turn the puck over we use our transition game and go the other way. That is where our speed and skill comes into play,” finished Laich on what he sees as the keys to winning in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Notes: Alexander Ovechkin was on the ice for practice today but he headed to the dressing room earlier than most of his teammates prompting speculation by some that he is less than 100% healthy. The Great #8 did do a post practice interview with a very large contingent of media…The Edmonton Oilers won the 2010 NHL Draft lottery and will select first overall in Los Angeles in late June. The top two candidates, according to the NHL scout I spoke with recently, are Taylor Hall of the Windsor Spitfires and Tyler Seguin of the Plymouth Whalers. With Seguin being a center and Hall being a left wing, I have hunch that Oilers GM Steve Tambellini will select Tyler over Taylor.