Capitals vs. Canadiens Playoff Preview

April 14, 2010 | Ed Frankovic

In the history of the Washington Capitals franchise they had never sold out every home game in the regular season. In 2009-10 the Caps did that and set a single season attendance record in the process. Coming into 2009-10, the Washington Capitals had never finished first overall in the NHL standings nor won the Presidents’ Trophy. This season the Caps did that going 54-15-13 (121 points) and became the first non-original six team to exceed the 120 point threshold. In their first 34 seasons of existence, the Capitals franchise had never won a Stanley Cup. In 2009-10…wait…hold on..hopefully we’ll need a couple of months before being able to cross that final item off the list.

Seriously though, if you start thinking too much about winning the Cup before the first playoff game even begins, and not on the process involved in winning a single post season game, then the next thing you know you’ll find yourself buying Titleists at Golf Galaxy. Fortunately the Washington Capitals coaches and players seem to understand that heading into their third straight playoff appearance, as evidenced by Alexander Ovechkin’s quotes here, (courtesy of Tarik El-Bashir of the Washington Post).

The good news out at Kettler Iceplex on Wednesday was the participation of center Nicklas Backstrom, who returned from an illness. However, Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and the rest of the organization plus its fans received a new scare when goalie Jose Theodore took a shot off of the inside of his left knee and left practice. Afterwards, Boudreau said that #60 was okay and would be fine for Thursday night when the Capitals and the Montreal Canadiens take to the ice for Game 1 of their first round Stanley Cup Playoff series at 7pm at the Verizon Center.

This series is an interesting match-up and the first ever post-season meeting between these two clubs. Here is my preview, analysis, and series prediction:

Offensively, there was no equal to the Caps in the regular season as Washington averaged 3.82 goals a game (313) compared to just 2.56 a contest (210) for Montreal. However, when it comes to the power play, the Canadiens gain alot of ground as they have the second best power play percentage in the league to the Capitals (25.2% to 21.8%). What stands out even more in those numbers is Montreal’s road power play percentage, 28.3%, the best in the league (Caps were 2nd at 24.8%). Clearly Boudreau’s crew needs to stay out of the penalty box in this series.

Defensively, Montreal has a slight advantage allowing just 2.66 goals a contest (218) to 2.77 allowed (227) by the Caps. Digging into those numbers, the Caps averaged 32.8 shots on goal a game while allowing 30.8. Montreal’s numbers show that they only potted 28.6 a game while surrendering 32.1 per contest. So the Caps gave up fewer shots a game than Montreal but allowed more goals.

The Caps, as Brooks Laich told me yesterday, like to play “pressure hockey” and when they do that they are awfully tough to beat. Washington brings speed and power up front and a back end that moves the puck well up the ice. The Canadiens don’t have the power of an Ovechkin in their lineup so they rely on a number of smaller forwads who are extremely fast such as Tomas Plekenac (25 goals, 70 points), Brian Gionta ( 28 goals), Scott Gomez (59 points), and Mike Cammalleri (26 goals). On the blue line the Canadiens are led by Andrei Markov (34 points) who missed 35 games and that was part of the reason this club is just the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

In net, the Canadiens have two very good goalies in Carey Price (5th overall pick in 2005 NHL Entry Draft) and Jaroslav Halak (goalie for Slovakia in 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver). Price played all four games versus Washington in the regular season but he has lost the job, for at least game one, to the Slovak. The Caps counter with the Theodore/Semyon Varlamov tandem. #60 has been outstanding since mid January and if he continues to play at that level the Caps are going to be awfully hard to beat.

Montreal will clearly try to win by drawing penalties on the Caps and taking advantage of their super power play while counting on Halak and/or Price to hold the fort in goal. They also hope that Theodore is rattled by playing against his former teammates. On the other hand, the Caps were the best team in the league this season and are MUCH healthier going into this post season than in 2008-09. Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green is in significantly better physical and mental shape and Jeff Schultz, who was injured in a poor first game one against the Rangers last post season, had a breakout campaign on the blue line. Simply put, the Capitals defense is performing at its highest level in the Boudreau era.

The playoffs are a grind and Washington has a lot more depth thanks to the super trades GM George McPhee made during the season adding forwards Jason Chimera, Eric Belanger, and Scott Walker plus defenseman Joe Corvo. Boudreau mentioned after practice yesterday that in the last two or three games that #77 has started to play at the level he expected of the defenseman (Corvo was +2 in last Friday’s game against Atlanta, his first plus game as a Cap). So overall, Washington seems to be positioned to play its best hockey in the post season while the Canadiens struggled down the stretch.

But anything can happen in the playoffs where a hot goalie can even up matchups that, on paper, appear to one sided. Next to the hot goalie, the key is to get contributions from your role players. Who can forget Matt Bradley’s big first goal in game five against the Rangers last post season that jump started the Washington rally from three games to one down? Caps forward Mike Knuble, who played on the 1997-98 Stanley Cup winning Detroit Red Wings, knows all too well about the need for that, as he told a few of us in the media on Tuesday afternoon after practice.

“You need a couple of guys that can get the ugly goals, they are the ones that help you win in the playoffs. Superstars get all of the attention but third and fourth line guys are the ones who get the timely, ugly goals. That is how you win series’,” started #22, who notched 29 tallies in his first season with the Capitals, most of them from right around the net.

“That’s what the playoffs are, guys who maybe are not known more start heading to the net, and score some timely goals that way. You don’t need guys to change their whole style but at times maybe do something a little bit out of character, blocking shots, finishing checks more, going to the net when they’re usually not a guy who bangs around the front of the net, that is where you are going to be rewarded,” continued Knuble on what it takes to win playoff games.

“The grinder guys like Darren McCarty, Kris Draper, Marty Lapointe, Kirk Maltby, all of these guys that were not the stars, they just contributed scoring timely goals, played a simple game, and were solid by bringing their level of play up as high as they could, played their career best. That’s all we want out of everybody, play your career best,” finished the right winger who figures to not only add those important close in goals, but provide post season leadership.

The Pick: This is the best Caps team I have ever seen. Yes, there is pressure on them from the fans, but nowhere near the heat they are putting on themselves. The Caps cannot wait to hit the ice for the Stanley Cup playoffs and silence their doubters. The key for them is to take it one shift, one period, and one game at a time with a focus on playing their system, no matter what the score of the contest. I believe their experience will show up in this series and to quote The Who, they “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Caps in Five.

Notes: The Caps AHL farm team, the Hershey Bears, rallied from a late third period two goal deficit to win their post season opener in overtime, 4-3, against Bridgeport (Islanders AHL team). Game two is Friday night at the Giant Center at 7pm. The Washington Capitals have released their official iPhone application, which was built in conjunction with Advanced Mobile Solutions Worldwide and currently is available at the Apple iTunes App Store. To check it out just click here. This is the first of a suite of smartphone applications that will be released by the Capitals with Android and Blackberry platforms available in the near future.