In the first five games of the playoff series between the Washington Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens the team that scores the first goal has won four of the five contests (game two was the exception). Only once, in game four, have the Caps scored the first goal of the game in the first period. In fact, Washington has been outscored 6-3 in the opening stanza in this series. After the first 20 minutes is over, however, the Capitals have dominated the scoreboard, 17-8. So on paper, a better start would seem to be the recipe for a Capitals series win on Monday night at the Bell Centre.
Anyone who has ever played hockey knows that it is a very emotion driven game. Talent gets you a long way in the sport, but at the NHL level, where there is plenty of that to go around, often desire and effort are what carries the day. The Washington Capitals are an extremely talented team but when they are really clicking at or near their best, it is because they are playing with passion. Assessing what I’ve seen in the first five games of this series, I haven’t witnessed the consistent intensity level the Caps need to not only win this series quickly, but to take their game to a level needed to go deep in the playoffs. Perhaps it is the fact that they don’t have a huge history against Montreal as far as grude matches or past battles go, but I think it is fair to say that the reason the Canadiens are still around in this first round is because they have played with more emotion.
On Monday night, you can bet that the Canadiens will come out with alot of energy because they will be sparked by their fanatical home crowd of 22,000 plus. In game three the Habs were all over Washington in the first period but thanks to some superb goaltending by Semyon Varlamov, the Capitals got out of period one in a scoreless tie. The Caps would get an early first goal in the second period and go on to a 5-1 rout. I am pretty sure Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau does not want to put the first period of game six entirely on Varlamov’s shoulders again so the Washington players need to figure out a way to come out and match the emotion of the Canadiens in order to avoid getting run out of the Bell Centre.
Players like Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, and Mike Green must start producing goals to help the Capitals cause. Semin, a 40 goal scorer in the regular season, is at the top of the list of Caps that needs to play with more grit and get a goal. #28 has the speed and the strength to blow by any of the Canadiens defensemen but despite several opportunities to do that in this series, the Russian forward has shied away from the hard play and instead done one of his newly patented cut back moves away from the centre of the ice and prime goal scoring area. Simply put, this pattern needs to stop, starting Monday night, if Semin wants to help his team be victorious. “Playing the easy game” does not win playoff series and that is what Sasha has been doing in the first five contests.
As for Green, I think #52 might be putting too much pressure on himself, because having spoken with him on several occassions I know how badly he wants to do well and produce. When you see pucks bouncing off his stick on the power play with no one close to him it is a major indication that he is pressing. The Calgary native just needs to relax and go out and play his game. If there is any coach in the NHL who can get him to settle down and do that, then it is Boudreau. Green worships the 2007-08 Jack Adams award winner, and rightly so, if not for Bruce I am not sure #52 reaches the levels he has hit so quickly in his career. I wouldn’t be surprised if Boudreau doesn’t find some magic words of wisdom for “Game over Greenie” before Monday night’s huge tilt in Montreal.
As for Laich, I don’t think anyone could ever question his passion for hockey. The guy, who is often the last one off of the practice rink, eats, sleeps, and drinks the game. He is a leader and a fierce competitor so to see him with only a goal and an assist and -1 in five games has to be tearing him up. Part of his struggles are that he has often been playing with Semin and Tomas Fleischmann, the two Caps who I would grade the lowest so far in this playoff series. But Laich would not blame his woes on others and he has had some chances that he hasn’t buried. I do expect a big effort from Laich on Monday in game six.
We have often heard the Capitals players talk about giving “a full 60 minute effort.” To a man, they would all probably say they have yet to produce one of those in this series. There is no doubt Montreal will be ready for game six given what we’ve seen from them in each contest and perhaps they have worn themselves out in the early stages of these games and that has allowed the Caps to dominate the final 40 minutes plus? There may be some truth to that theory, but on the whole, I am not buying it. The Caps are the ones to blame for not being prepared at puck drop so far and they need to do whatever it takes to change that on Monday night. This team is never out of games and can always come back, but let’s be honest, they had their big rally game in the second contest and now it is time for them to show that they are “who we thought they are” and dominate from the onset of game six and close this series out.