Monday at Kettler IcePlex in Ballston, Virginia the Washington Capitals hit the ice for their first playoff practice of 2009 with a goal of winning the Stanley Cup this spring. Defending Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin addressed the team’s ultimate goal after practice with the media and the Great #8 basically said that just winning one or two series is not good enough because they want to win the Cup, but to do that they have to focus first on just beating a very good New York Rangers team (you can see the Ovechkin interview at WashingtonCaps.com). Caps Head Coach Bruce Boudreau, along the same lines, mentioned the following on the Rangers and the overall goal in his post practice news conference, “I was just watching a couple of their games right now and [the Rangers] are going to be a very difficult opponent…our goal has always been to win the Cup, and it was last year, the people that said [last year] was a successful season were the media, we didn’t say it was a successful season, because we didn’t finish our goal. We thought we should have beat Philadelphia last year and we didn’t. So I think all people with a lot of character want to win the Cup when they get the opportunity. Now that it is down to 16 teams anything less for any player or any team in this league would be a disappointment.”
Things appear vastly different for the Caps going into the playoffs this season from last year emotionally and physically. Instead of having to win almost every game down the stretch to make the playoffs and paying the physical and mental toll that goes with that grind game in and game out, Washington enjoyed a very solid regular season that landed them the second seed in the Eastern Conference. As I’ve mentioned recently, they were able to play what I will call “stress free” hockey the last 10 games before the quest for the Cup will begin this Wednesday. I asked Caps forward Brooks Laich today how this year is different from last season.
“I think we are more relaxed and I think we are more prepared. This year heading into the playoffs we were preparing for the playoffs where as last year heading in we were just trying to get there. Every day was a struggle to get there and we were finally there. This year we’ve had some time to think about it, work on our game leading up to the playoffs, and I think we are a more confident group this year. The experience gained from last year should do wonders for our group this year,” said Laich, who set a career high for goals and points this year with 23 and 57, respectively.
Laich then expanded further on those thoughts comparing last year’s playoff series to how they are approaching the match-up with New York this upcoming week.
“We won the first game last year and we didn’t play real well in that one then we lost the next three and we didn’t play really well until our backs were up against the wall and it was win or go home. For some reason we just relaxed, we weren’t squeezing our sticks so tight, we just relaxed and played and had a lot of fun and then we started to be successful. I think that is what we are going to do this year. We are not going to go in and try and be overly intense and then get out of position and make mistakes. We are going to relax, we are going to play our game and hopefully that will be enough,” added Laich.
#21 was also asked about the wait just to get to the playoffs.
“It has been a long wait. Knowing that you are going to be in, we knew a couple of weeks ago we were, but we still had stuff we wanted to play for, like 2nd in the conference which we did, but it is always in the back of your mind – let’s get this thing going. I think the guys are really excited and we had a good practice today. We like the match-up, the Rangers are a very good hockey team, and it is going to be a long series,” finished Laich.
As for Mike Green, the leading goal and point scorer among all NHL defensemen this season (31 goals and 42 assists), I asked him if the wait has been tough and if the playoffs were on his mind for awhile.
“Yes, last year every day we were fighting and this year you are resting and thinking about that first game so, yes, we can’t wait until Wednesday. Last year it seemed like we were playing playoff hockey from a month left in the season and this year maybe we are a little more rested and maybe mentally not as tired as were last year but we can’t use that as an excuse last year, no matter what we have to make sure we are working hard and doing the right things to move on. I think we are all just excited to get started,” said Green.
Green then talked about what the Caps needed to do to be successful against the Rangers.
“This year we are confident but not over confident like we were last year. We learned last year how tough the NHL playoffs are and a lot of us had never been in the playoffs before…they are a good team and they’ve got some good players over there that are pretty dangerous. As long as we play good defensively we usually don’t have a problem scoring goals. We know [NY goalie Henrik] Lundqvist is gonna play well but as long as we play defense we’ll be fine,” finished Green.
On the topic of experience, I chatted with three time Stanley Cup Champion Sergei Fedorov to find out his thoughts on this team and what they gained from last year’s playoff series.
“Well certainly we didn’t get up to the goals we wanted to get last year but certainly we got that experience playing in the playoffs, so I think is going to be very positive for us and I think it is going to help us,” started Fedorov, “Obviously when you win once or twice you always want to win it again. It is a precious trophy and the hardest trophy to win. I think we do have nice chemistry, in general, guys like each other and like to play with each other and work together. We’ll see how it is going to go. I’m sure the first round will be nerve racking but if we are willing to work hard like we did in the regular season I don’t see why we can’t win,” added #91.
I also asked Fedorov about the World Championship he, Ovechkin, and Semin won with Russia last year and if that could help the team this year.
“I hope so, but the format is much different. In the world cup you just play straight 10 games every other day and the quarter finals just appear out of nowhere, then semi-final, and all of sudden final. [Stanley Cup] Playoffs are obviously different, you have your opponent and you know them inside out and play them until you win four games out of seven, so you know your opponent much better than in the world cup,” finished Fedorov, who certainly will play a key role in how far Washington goes in the post season.
Backstrom improves at the dot: I had a chance to talk with Nicklas Backstrom on Monday about his recent improvements on face-offs, he is a remarkable 55-19 in his last four home games, and here is what #19 had to say.
“I don’t know, maybe I try to do something different. I try to shift a little bit more and it works sometimes,” started Backstrom, who was then asked if any of the other players, such as Fedorov, gave him any tips, “Actually no, I just have been mad at myself for struggling before. It is something that is going to be important in all situations and everyone knows,” finished Backstrom.
Whatever he is doing, it is clearly working, and perhaps just the extra focus and effort is the real reason for his huge improvement.
Roster notes: Everyone was skating for the big club this morning including Boyd Gordon (missed several weeks with a fractured finger), Donald Brashear (out since Nashville game due to knee injury) and Chris Clark (wrist surgery). Clark is still expected to be out until the second round (he is unable to fully shoot the puck) but Gordon and Brashear are available for Game 1 against the New York Rangers on Wednesday at the Verizon Center at 7pm. Forward Keith Aucoin, who had a nice recent stint with the big club, was assigned to Hershey on Sunday since Gordon is now healthy. The only other injury note is that Tom Poti is still nursing a sore groin and is questionable for Wednesday’s series opener.
Caps-Rangers Series Analysis and Prediction
This series pits the number one penalty killing team in the NHL in the Rangers and the number two overall power play from the Caps. Here are some thoughts from a couple of players on that topic.
“Two things, they are aggressive and great goaltending,” started Laich on why New York is so successful while shorthanded, “they don’t get out of position, they have smart forwards, they have reliable defensemen, and you have to beat Lundqvist to get the goal, so it is going to be a good match-up of our power play versus their penalty kill,” finished Laich.
“It will be interesting to see how it plays out. We rely on our power play, if we struggle we usually don’t get a lot of momentum but I think everyone will raise their game for the playoffs,” said Green.
The Caps were 3-0-1 against New York in the regular season but most people know that really doesn’t matter and Green confirmed that with the following.
“I think the playoffs is a whole new season. I don’t think we are going to talk about our record against them during the regular season because it is a long season and teams get tired at different times so maybe that was the case [for the wins against the Rangers] but everyone is going to be rested come Wednesday,” said the Norris Trophy candidate.
What I like about Washington: Their skill and team speed. The Caps have never had a team with this much speed and offensive talent with guys like Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Backstrom, and Green. Add in guys like Fedorov and Laich to go with role players like Tomas Fleischmann, Eric Fehr (Stat of the day: With Fehr in the lineup the Caps were 39-16-6, as opposed to their 11-8-2 record when he did not play), Matt Bradley, and Boyd Gordon and you have a great group of forwards (#2 in the East in goal scoring). I also really like Jose Theodore in net and anyone that lists him as the number one concern for this team heading into the playoffs has not really been paying close attention to Caps games. Theodore has been very good since December 23rd (the 5-4 comeback win against the Rangers).
The concern about the Caps: Team defense. Washington has shown to be loose in their own end, at times. This typically happened when Washington was not playing against some of the better teams in the league. When Washington played clubs like the Rangers, Bruins, and Devils they were good, for the most part, defensively. They will need to play at a high level in their own end to win this series.
What I like about New York: Great goalie in Lundqvist. Playoff experienced forwards in Scott Gomez (two Stanley Cup wins with New Jersey) and Chris Drury (Stanley Cup victory with Colorado) and a head coach with a Stanley Cup ring and a system that works in John Tortorella. They have been hot down the stretch (12-6-1) and as Boudreau pointed out today they played a real tough schedule over the last 10 games. They are also more physical since Tortorella took over so they may try to play that angle against the Caps with Sean Avery, Colton Orr, and Brandon Dubinsky. They also added big forward Nik Antropov (6′ 6″, 230 lbs) at the trade deadline and he is very skilled and tough to move in the corner or in front of the net.
The concern about the Rangers: Goal scoring, they only had 210 goals, by far the fewest of any Eastern Conference playoff team. They also have the worst power play in the league at 13.7%. The Rangers did manage to score eight goals in the two games at Madison Square Garden but only tallied twice at the Verizon Center.
Analysis: Much has been made of Avery’s potential impact on this series and several media members asked the Caps players and coaches if he will try and rattle them. Avery will do what he does best, as Boudreau put it, but given how much damage he has done to the league he needs to be really careful because he is on a short leash and anything close to the line will result in the referees sending him to the box giving an edge to a Caps team with a potent power play. The Caps need to not get caught up in his taunts and mind games and just play hockey. This will be a really close, hard fought series but I think Washington has just enough firepower and skill to squeak this one out, but it won’t be easy. The Caps home crowd could be the difference maker in this playoff series.
“Everyone knows the Rangers are a good team and it is going to be close games. Hopefully we can have some home advantage,” added Backstrom.
Prediction: Caps in 7 games.