After avoiding a potential 2-0 series hole by rallying from a 4-1 late second period deficit to win, 6-5, in overtime on Saturday night, the Washington Capitals head to Montreal for games three and four (on Monday and Wednesday) with the momentum on their side in this best of seven game series. The question now is, can they keep it? The answer is, that depends! There were certainly some positives that Washington can build on but, in truth, there are a few serious issues that need to be addressed if the Caps want to win this series in dominating fashion.
First the positives, the Washington top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Knuble was back in full force on Saturday turning in a dominating performance to lead their team to the victory. All three players went to the net and did a decent job of getting pucks deep in the offensive zone and outworking the Canadiens defense, something Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau wants the team to focus on doing because the Habs are so effective with their neutral zone trap.
In addition, Boudreau received two super performances from 20 year old rookie John Carlson on the blue line to open his NHL playoff career. #74 makes a mistake here or there, and that is expected from such a young guy, but the kid competes hard, plays physical because he has the body of a 25 year old, and adds another potent offensive dimension to the Washington attack. As good as Backstrom and Ovechkin were on Saturday night, the Capitals do not win game two without Carlson (assist on third goal, scored fifth Washington tally to send game to OT).
Semyon Varlamov came in and made some super stops in relief of Jose Theodore and he looked poised in goal. The Caps players seem to have supreme confidence in #40 in the playoffs and he delivered when his teammates needed him allowing them to come back and be victorious. If Varlamov is healthy, and he was shaking his left leg a bit after an early third period collision, then he would be my choice in goal for game three.
Some other things Boudreau should be pleased about is the team’s face-off domination, led by Eric Belanger (29-7), and the work of his third and fourth lines. In addition, defenseman Joe Corvo had a stronger game two after a subpar performance on Thursday in the post season opener. Finally, the even strength score in this series is 8-6, Caps, and they seemed to have exploited some of Jaroslav Halak’s weaknesses (he goes down early and is vulnerable up high).
Now come the issues that need addressing and I’ll start with the special teams. The Caps have given up a power play tally in each of the first two games while not connecting on any of their seven manpower advantages. On the PK, Washington needs to prevent Montreal from getting those clean one timers from the circles or the point blasts from the center portion of the ice. The Caps penalty kill relies on the forwards to force the shots to come from bad angles but breakdowns have led to two goals, with the most glaring one being Alexander Semin allowing Jaroslav Spacek’s shot to get past him for what ended up being the fourth Montreal goal.
On the power play, Backstrom told me last night that the Canadiens are keying on Ovechkin. Proof of that is the number of shots they are blocking and the Great #8 has had a difficult time getting untracked on the left point. Montreal is keeping both of their forwards up high on the PK so what Ovie and Mike Green need to do is send the puck down low and allow the other three Caps to try and score on a three on two below the circles. Boudreau and assistant coach Dean Evason also might consider moving Ovechkin down low where he can get some rebounds? In that case they could insert either Tom Poti on the left point, like they did against the Rangers last year, or put Carlson out there. Simply put, the Caps power play has been a momentum killer so far in this series. Evidence of that is right after they knotted the game at four on Saturday, the Capitals received a five on four but they struggled to get set up and shortly after the advantage expired Tomas Plekenac scored to make it 5-4, Habs.
I mentioned the neutral zone trap the Habs employ and you can credit that to some of the struggles Boudreau’s top defensive pair, Green and Jeff Schultz, had on Saturday. #52 and #55 made several bad reads that led to turnovers and those two guys were on the ice for the last four Montreal goals. Green and Schultz seemed to have problems with the speed of the Montreal forwards, particularly the Plekenac, Mike Cammalleri, and Andrei Kostitsyin line. Given that Schultz was on the ice for Plekenac’s game winner in the Canadiens OT victory that snapped the Caps 14 game winning streak back in February, I went back to check the regular season stats vs. the Habs for 52 and 55 to see if this was indeed simply the result of a bad matchup. The numbers, however, did not bear that out at all as Green and Schultz were +5 and +3, respectively in the four regular season tilts. Boudreau said after the game that Green and Schultz need to focus more on playing the man than the puck so we’ll see how that works out in game three. If those two continue to struggle as a pair then perhaps Shaone Morrisonn gets moved back with #52 and Schultz gets paired with either Corvo or Carlson?
The second line is another area of concern and neither Tomas Fleischmann nor Brendan Morrison did a good job at center. Perhaps Belanger gets a shot in Montreal? Another big problem on that unit is the play of Semin, who seems to be allergic to the front of the net. Early on in game one both Brooks Laich and Flash had some scoring chances and if #28 had even just a little nose for the net then he may have had a rebound tally or two. Semin, who seemed to pick his game up once Ovechkin was named team captain in January, has been missing in action in games one and two of the playoffs despite firing 11 shots on goal. Skill isn’t his problem, it is his attitude and compete level, so perhaps #8 will have a little talk with Sasha and tell him to get it in gear starting now?
As for Theodore, I fully expect him to shake off Saturday’s start. That first goal by Gionta was a knuckleball but Theo was not in the proper position on that shot so I still put that one on him. The way players are flying into the crease and crashing into goaltenders many teams will likely need two goalies so #60 must regain his focus and be ready when his number is called again, because it is very likely to happen some time this post season.
In summary, the Caps can probably squeak this series out if they play like they did in the later stages of game two. However, if they want to close things out quickly, get some rest, and prepare themselves for a deep playoff run then they need to get all 20 players clicking on all cylinders like Boudreau desires. Right now, there are several passengers on the train who need to get in post season form quickly. Numbers 28, 52, and 55 fit into that category at this juncture and are the most important ones who must get on board starting on Monday night.
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