Just two days before they open their playoff series in Boston against the Bruins on Thursday night (7:30 pm on Comcast Sportsnet) the Washington Capitals hit the ice at Kettler IcePlex and had a high intensity and spirited practice. The Caps went 5-2 down the stretch, and after what appeared to be a disastrous loss to Buffalo on March 27th, they shook it off and played some good hockey. In my book, this Capitals team, which missed Mike Green for most of the season and Nicklas Backstrom for 40 games, still has yet to play its’ best hockey. In years past that has not been the case, so I spoke with some of the players to get their take on that premise.
“We’ve been better in the past couple of weeks, I think we’ve been playing better hockey, but we’ve got more to offer. Our best player, [Alexander Ovechkin], he’s been playing better and he’s gonna get better and with the playoffs coming I think everybody is going to put everything on the line. It’s different for us this year as a seventh seed instead of the first seed, so I think it’s going to be different. We’re ready, we’re hungry for the playoffs, I think we’ll be ready to go,” said center Mathieu Perreault, who scored 16 goals in 2011-12.
“I think everybody knows it’s a long and season and it’s tough to ask any team to keep at that level where you play your best or have your best, I would say, and we haven’t. Lately, especially at the end of the season, I think we play solid games. I think we played pretty good against some tough teams and we’ve proven we can play against anybody. But, that’s past, that’s over. I think this is a new season that is going to start with the playoffs, it’s totally different hockey. Now we have to bring our best,” added defenseman Roman Hamrlik, who I thought played his finest game of the year in the season finale in New York.
It is one thing to admit you haven’t played your best hockey and another thing to then go out and do it. Both former coach Bruce Boudreau and new coach Dale Hunter have talked about playing simple. This Caps team is highly talented and skilled, especially at wing, but the club has a tendency to try and make the perfect play. So can these guys put those past patterns aside and simplify their game?
“Lately we try to keep it simple, our D is just up the wall to the winger, chip it in and get on the forecheck. I think we are a better team when we do that and we work down low. We are a good team cycling the puck to the net so we are going to have to do that,” added Perreault on a reason why the team has played better in the last five games.
“What do we have to do? We talked about that the whole season. Just play our system, stick with what we have to do. Make the first quick pass on the tape and get the puck quickly and out of our zone and cycle the team and play in their zone. Try to stay out of the box. They have a pretty good power play. Be mentally ready and prepared for a big challenge. They won last year and everybody knows they’re a championship team. They have a pretty good solid hard working team and we have to bring everything we’ve got,” said Hamrlik, echoing the importance of the easy pass and cycle game.
Certainly special teams is going to be a huge factor, especially the power play in this series (btw, if you haven’t read this post by Caps beat writer Mike Vogel, then make sure you check it out). The unit has been very bad at home and one of the major reasons is the overpassing of the puck. On Tuesday the team practiced it and there was an emphasis on shots from the point with traffic in front of the opposing goalie. But we’ve seen and heard that before only to see that strategy abandoned come game time. Last Saturday against the Rangers, the power play was mostly atrocious and yielded several shorthanded chances. But when John Carlson was on the ice, things were different and Washington scored. #74 stuck to the formula the coaches have been selling so it is paramount that Green, Oveckhin, Dennis Wideman, and others buy in. A playoff series can be won alone on special teams, as the Vogel story points out.
“Yes, we are trying to be cute sometimes with the skill that we have, especially on the point and the top of the power play we should use [the shot] more if we see an open lane and there is a little bit of traffic. That is how most of the goals are going in, they’re through traffic or screens or they’re banging them in around the goal line. I think that we’ve been talking about that a little bit more,” added Carlson, who certainly gets it and should see more man advantage time on the point, in my book.
Another big factor for the Caps to play their best begins in net with goalie Braden Holtby. Not only does #70 need to stop the puck, but against a physical team like Boston he has to help his defense out with his superior puck handling skills. Holtby hasn’t been up all season so the defense isn’t as used to his habits as a team would like. That puts a heavy onus on the communication between the net minder and the defenders.
“I had Carey Price in Montreal. He loves to go behind the net and he likes to play the puck and it helps you, from my experience it is like a third defensemen. He goes and he plays the puck and it makes it easy on yourself and helps us for not facing too much to the boards and getting hit. First we have to talk to him and it is all about communication. The games he played he did a pretty good job so hopefully he’s going to continue to do that,” said Hamrlik on Holtby and the importance of communication with a stick handling adept goalie.
“I think the communication is always there, I think it is still hard because obviously when the D are coming back for the puck we see one thing and he’s looking up and he sees another thing. It’s tough to communicate perfectly every time, but we do our best. He helps us out, especially on just little plays where we can go behind the net and he can get out of the net and play it to us. We still have time to maybe get the back of the net so they can’t pressure us right off of the bat. That is huge, first off we don’t get run every time and we have time to make a play, make the right play, and break out of the zone,” added Carlson providing some interesting scenarios for where #70 can make a huge difference.
So when you sum it up, for Washington to play its’ best hockey of the season they are going to have to simplify their game, win the special teams battle, and get stops plus puck movement from their goalie. As Hamrlik told me, there is a battle going on for every inch of space in the post season. Boston is a very good team and will try and be physical with Washington. That doesn’t bother guys like Perreault, who says that he doesn’t mind going into the high traffic areas. If #85 is doing that, then one would hope that Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer, Joel Ward, and others do that as well. Even Ovechkin should make a habit of stopping in front of the net more often because the closer you are to the net, the higher the probability of the shot going in.
The formula is there for Washington to upset Boston, who are the heavy favorites based on the numerous series’ previews I’ve seen, but the execution is what matters.
Will this year be different? We’ll find out soon enough.
Notes: The Caps recalled forward Mattias Sjogren from Sweden today and he will practice with the team during the postseason. He is not eligible to play for Hershey in the AHL playoffs…both injured goalies Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth tried skating on Tuesday. #30 had the better session, but it doesn’t look like either guy will be ready to start a game any time soon…Hamrlik has a lot of playoff history against Boston and remember the Canadiens won the first two games of the opening round series last season before losing in overtime in game seven to the B’s..I will have my final series preview and prediction up on Wednesday night.