The Washington Capitals players had the day off on Monday but Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau was out at Kettler Ice Plex studying film of the Montreal Canadiens in preparation for Thursday’s playoff opener at the Verizon Center (7pm on Comcast HD). The Capitals, who finished the regular season with 121 points (54-15-13) will take on a Habs team that struggled in its’ last 10 games (3-4-3) and barely held off a hard charging New York Rangers club (7-1-2 in last 10) for the eighth and final playoff spot. Montreal went 39-33-10 (88 points) and on paper this appears like a mismatch despite the fact that the season series saw each team win a game after regulation had ended with the other two contests being decided by one and two goals, respectively. Many predictions, outside of the city of Montreal, have the Caps winning this one rather quickly.
But the playoffs are a totally different animal and the intensity will be high. There are several things for Boudreau to look at and examine but one of the first has to be to find some weaknesses in a pair of very good goaltenders. Carey Price, who played all four games in the regular season series between these two teams, went 13-20-5 on the year but he had a .912 save percentage. Jaroslav Halak, who pretty much carried Team Slovakia into the final four of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, was 26-13-5 with a .924 save percentage and appears to have won the number one goalie job going into the post season. Both of these goalies are very good and if one stumbles, the Caps aren’t getting any bargains if the other one gets an opportunity. A big key for Washington will be to get traffic on either goalie, fire the puck on net, and go for rebounds, something they did very well at times this season with the addition of Mike Knuble (29 goals).
Montreal struggles to score, tallying only 217 times counting shootout goals, and only six teams in the NHL lit the lamp on fewer occassions. However, their leading point scorer, Tomas Plekenac (25 goals, 45 assists), owns the Caps and he had four goals, an assist, and was +2 in the four meetings between these squads. #14 is a small, shifty center that gives Washington fits and will likely be someone the team focuses on slowing down. The Canadiens had the second best power play in the NHL, behind the Caps, and are ancored by defenseman Andrei Markov’s booming shot. #79 had six goals, 28 assists and was a team high +11 while playing just 45 games (injured for most of the first half of the season).
I will be out at Caps practice on Tuesday and will bring you more information on this matchup before unleashing my series prediction on Wednesday night.
NHL Playoff Predictions
There are seven other series to open the Stanley Cup playoffs, which start on Wednesday night on VERSUS (games also on NHL Centre Ice package). Here is a quick preview and prediction on each matchup:
#2 New Jersey Devils vs. #7 Philadelphia Flyers: The Flyers won five of the six games between these two teams in the regular season and Devils goalie Martin Brodeur does have his problems with Philly, at times. But with Brian Boucher in goal for the Flyers because of injuries to Ray Emery and Michael Leighton, I just don’t see Philly being able to stop a team that has Zach Parise, Ilya Kovalchuk, Travis Zajac, Patrick Elias, and Jamie Langenbrunner. Philadelphia scored 236 goals (includes shootout goals) and is led up front by Mike Richards (31), Jeff Carter (33), and Daniel Briere (26). However, Carter is coming off of a fractured foot so he is not 100%. The Pick: Devils in 6
#3 Buffalo Sabres vs. #6 Boston Bruins: It remains to be seen if Sabres forward Tim Connolly (missed last 9 games due to a foot injury) will be ready for the post season. Connolly had 65 points and is a highly skilled, but very injury prone player. In addition, Jochen Hecht and Drew Stafford are both banged up for Buffalo while Boston looks to be without Marc Savard, who has not played since being knocked out by that vicious and dirty hit from Matt Cooke of Pittsburgh. One question I have is how much does Ryan Miller, who has carried this Sabres club, have left in the tank? The Bruins appear to be going with Tuukka Rask instead of Team USA backup goalie Tim Thomas. The Pick: Sabres in 7.
#4 Pittsburgh Penguins vs. #5 Ottawa Senators: This will be the 3rd playoff meeting in four years for these two squads. Ottawa received a big blow losing forward Alexei Kovalev for the season with a knee injury. The Sens have gotten super goaltending from Brian Elliott and Jason Spezza and Daniel Alfredsson have played exceptionally well in the second half of the season. But the Penguins, who on paper don’t appear to be as good as last season, have just too much for GM Bryan Murray’s club with Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, and Jordan Staal up the middle and Marc-Andre Fleury in net. The Pick: Penguins in 5
#1 San Jose Sharks vs. #8 Colorado Avalanche: The Sharks, who historically have done well in the regular season and then struggled in the post season, have a super top line of Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, and Patrick Marleau. Their defense is anchored by Stanley Cup veterans Dan Boyle and Rob Blake. Between the pipes it is Evgeni Nabokov, who has had his struggles this year and in the Olympics for Team Russia. The Avalanche, who finished last in the West in 2008-09 were the surprise team of the season getting major contributions from rookies Matt Duchense and Ryan O’Reilly. Noone was more important to the Avs than goalie Craig Anderson, who was signed as a free agent from Florida and carried this club on his back. However, the clock has struck midnight for this young team coached by former Capital Joe Sacco. The Pick: Sharks Sweep in 4.
#2 Chicago Blackhawks vs. #7 Nashville Predators: The Hawks were the chic pick last summer to win it all with young superstar forwards Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane. They have a super blue line led by Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook but their puck rushing and power play specialist, Brian Campbell, is still out with a fractured clavicle. Chicago has goalie issues but will likely go with Antti Niemi (26-7-4) over Cristobal Huet (26-14-4). Niemi’s save percentage was .912 to Huet’s .895, a big difference. The Predators get great coaching from former Baltimore Skipjacks coach Barry Trotz and former Caps GM David Poile, who with a limited budget to work with, seems to accomplish things with mirrors year in and year out. The Preds have a great defensive trio of Shea Weber, Ryan Suter, and Dan Hamhuis that will have their work cut out for them against the high flying Blackhawks. The Pick: Chicago in 7.
#3 Vancouver Canucks vs. #6 Los Angeles Kings: Vancouver has the Sedin twins, Henrik and Daniel, Ryan Kesler, and Alexander Burrows up front to go with Team Canada Olympic gold medal winning goalie Roberto Luongo. The Kings, who are guided by former Capitals and Skipjacks Coach Terry Murray are a young team that exceeded expectations thanks primarily to great goaltending from American Jonathan Quick. The Kings have talented and physical 20 year old defenseman Drew Doughty and some skilled forwards in Anze Kopitar and Alexandre Frolov but they also have gritty ones in team captain Dustin Brown and Ryan Smyth. Smyth and Brown are both players who will go to the net for the ugly goals, but scoring on Luongo is very difficult. The Pick: Canucks in 6
#4 Phoenix Coyotes vs. #5 Detroit Red Wings: Phoenix, along with LA and Colorado, were a surprise to make the playoffs but goalie Ilya Bryzgalov was sensational and former Capital Dave Tippett did a wonderful job of getting Shane Doan to adjust his game to mesh with some younger forwards. The result was the best season in Coyotes history. That won’t matter though as the vaunted Wings are finally healthy and appear to be clicking on all cylinders. Rookie Jimmy Howard has seized the goaltending job from Chris Osgood. Detroit still has Nicklas Lidstrom and Brian Rafalski on defense and up front Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg have really elevated their games since the Olympic Break. GM Ken Holland and coach Mike Babcock also got Johan Franzen back from an ACL injury in early February. When healthy, this team is scary good. The Pick: Wings Sweep in 4.