Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Boudreau Pulls the Right Strings ... More to Come?

After a convincing 5-1 road victory against the Montreal Canadiens in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the Washington Capitals are beginning to look like the dominant team that ran up 121 points during the regular season. Perhaps the most encouraging thing for the Caps at this point, however, is that they still haven’t hit on all cylinders.

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau certainly pulled the right strings to get help get the Caps on the right track at the Bell Centre Monday, inserting Boyd Gordon back into the lineup as the fourth-line center and starting Semyon Varlamov over Jose Theodore in goal. All Gordon did was win 11 of his first 12 faceoffs en route to a 13-2 night and notch a shorthanded goal, the first playoff tally of his career, which ignited a four-goal second-period outburst that took the crowd and the Habs out of the game.

As for Varlamov, he helped Washington weather a furious Montreal first-period onslaught, turning aside all 10 shots he faced, including at least five bona fide scoring chances, on the way to a 36-save effort that improved his career record to 3-0 at the Bell Centre with better than a .940 save percentage and a GAA substantially below 2.00.

“When Varly makes those great saves early, we start to feel good,” Alex Ovechkin said. “And our defense did an unbelievable job for us against their top line. They stayed close and didn’t give them space.”

Added Boudreau after today’s skate: “I didn’t realize until this morning that they had so many great chances. Sometimes the score of the game masks how you play. I thought at the end of the first period we had done a pretty good job, but they came really close with five really good chances to score. Varly was up to the task.”

Varlamov’s performance seemed to have a deflating effect on the Habs that was very similar to what the Caps experienced in Game 1. For the first time in the series Montreal seemed to wear down during the second period, allowing Washington’s forwards to get to the net with and without the puck.

Gordon’s goal came on a 2-on-1 after a misplay at the point by Roman Hamrlik. He took the puck down the right wing, looking for Mike Knuble, but ended up taking a shot from in-close and banging in the rebound before anyone put a hand on him. The second goal came on a shot by Brooks Laich that went through the legs of Eric Fehr, who was able to stand untouched behind two Habs’ d-men and screen Jaroslav Halak. Washington’s third score came when Fehr again paraded untouched through the slot to smack home a rebound, and Ovechkin netted the fourth after being left untouched inside the faceoff circle for at least two seconds.

“It doesn’t matter whether you score shorthanded, 5-on-5 or on the power play,” Ovechkin said, “when you get that first goal it makes you feel good.”

Each one of those goals came either from in-close or as a direct result of players being left alone by a seemingly tired Montreal defensive corps. Later in the game, after a Tomas Plekanec power-play goal had briefly rejuvenated the Habs and the crowd, two lazy clear attempts by a slow-to-react Montreal defense allowed Matt Bradley to take the puck and fire at least four shots from point-blank range before burying the Caps’ fifth maker of the night.

“We have to play like that,” Ovechkin said. “(Jason) Chimera did an unbelievable job (on the fourth line). He was all over the place doing his job. He had chances and did not score, but a lot of different guys did their jobs tonight.”

Those different guys came in the form of secondary scorers, who had largely had been absent from the scoresheet the first two games. Fehr (1G, 1A), Laich (1G, 1A), Gordon (1G), Bradley (1G) and Brendan Morrison (1A) accounted for more points in one night than forwards not named Ovechkin, Knuble or Backstrom had contributed in the first two contests combined.

It appeared as though the play of Varlamov, paired with the speed, strength and size of the Caps, simply sapped the will and energy from the Canadiens. At one point in the third period, Washington winger Alexander Semin, who has been a non-contributor offensively in three games, blew past Hamrlik on the right-wing boards and cruised in for another in-tight opportunity. He almost looked surprised by the fact that no one was around to put a body on him and actually rushed the shot.

So, while Boudreau had the magic touch in some areas, he still has an opportunity to figure out how to get his power play, 40-goal man Semin and the NHL’s leading defenseman scorer Mike Green untracked. Green played his best game of the series – especially in his own end – and finally contributed an assist, both of which were positive signs, but Semin, although playing with more passion, remained scoreless, and the league’s top-rated power play continued to misfire, going 0-for-7.

For the series Washington is 0-for-14 with the extra man, and the Caps are 0 for their last 20 dating back to the regular season. Washington has more shorthanded goals than power-play tallies at this point, and 12 of their 13 markers in the series have come during 5-on-5 action. In Game 3 Boudreau tried two separate power-play units, separating Ovechkin and Backstrom at one point, moving Ovechkin from the point to the half boards or in front of the net at times and giving Joe Corvo an opportunity to man one of the points with Mike Green. His goal was to be able to see how Montreal would adapt on video and try to come up with a way to get some extra-man production in Game 3. The Caps worked on the power play today during their skate.

“We haven’t had any success at all,” Boudreau said. “It wasn’t a question of practicing it, frankly, it was more just getting guys’ positioning back to where it was. We are playing every second day, so we haven’t really practiced it since the playoffs started. We were just moving the puck around. We didn’t really go against any opposition. We’ll have to do it more by video than anything else to get better.”

If Boudreau can figure out a way to help the power play get better, the already formidable Caps will be very tough to beat going forward.

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