Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Caps - Canadiens Playoff Preview

Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens
NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinals
First Game – April 15, 2010
Verizon Center (Washington, DC)

Washington Probable Line Combinations


The Fore-word:
Brendan Morrison has practiced as part of the first line this week, taking the ill Nick Backstrom’s spot on Tuesday and alternating with Mike Knuble on Wednesday. Knuble was picked up to provide a physical presence up front during the playoffs and to create space for Backstrom and Ovechkin. Clearly Knuble (29 goals) is a lock to play, so it appears as though Morrison, who tailed off considerably in offensive production during the season’s second half, will be a healthy scratch along with Scott Walker and Quintin Laing. The Caps, who play at a faster pace than possibly every NHL team, do so despite having a group of big, strong forwards. The above lineup features only one player shorter than 6-feet (Eric Belanger) and only two players who weigh less than 200 lbs. (Belanger, 187 and Tomas Fleischmann, 192).

Defensive Pairings

Defense Department:
Washington’s defense features a rare combination of size, skill and mobility. D.C.’s blueliners average 6-3, 210 lbs., but head coach Bruce Boudreau has made sure in recent weeks to pair more mobile players such as Mike Green and Joe Corvo with more physical, stay-at-home types such as NHL plus-minus leader Jeff Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn. The third pairing of John Carlson and Tom Poti is a strong skating and puck-moving duo that also can be physical when needed. On most teams the big, swift-skating Carlson would be counted on to provide offense, but in his first year in Washington the U.S. World Junior Championships hero has assumed a more conservative, defensive role in the shadow of Green and Corvo. This has allowed him to adjust to the speed of the NHL game without feeling the pressure of having to do too much at both ends of the ice. Still, he has carried and moved the puck with more confidence in recent weeks and has created quite a bit of offense as the playoffs have approached.

Expect John Erskine and Tyler Sloan to open the series as healthy scratches, which shows just how far the Caps’ defense has come in a year. Erskine was one of the team’s most dependable d-men during last year’s playoffs and at times in the past has played as one of Washington’s top-four blueliners. If you look at statistics, overall skill, size and mobility, the Caps’ defense stacks up favorably against just about any defensive corps in the East. Where Washington has gotten into trouble in the past has been when the forwards have not committed to giving the effort at both ends of the ice required to go deep into the playoffs. The Caps have focused on this type of approach in recent weeks with encouraging results. They allowed three or fewer goals in their last six contests, going 5-0-1 and allowing just 13 total goals in that span.

Goaltending Depth Chart

Jose Theodore has bounced back from an inconsistent 2009 and first half of 2010 to place a stranglehold on the starting job heading into the postseason. He is unbeaten in regulation in his last 23 starts (20-0-3) dating to Jan. 12, posting a 2.58 GAA and .922 save percentage during that span. Perhaps most impressive and supportive of the theory that he needs to make the key saves and not all the saves has been Theodore’s third-period performance during the streak. In those 23 contests he has allowed just nine goals on 229 shots. “Obviously the third period is always more important,” Theodore said. “Either your down a goal and don’t want to go down two goals or you’re up a goal and want to make a big save to keep it that way. I just try to focus on making the big save at key times, and a lot of times that can be the difference between a win and a loss. I’ve been pretty focused the second half of the season – really all year long – and I just hope I can keep doing the same thing.”

Last year Theodore was unceremoniously yanked in favor of Semyon Varlamov after a Game 1 quarterfinal loss to the Rangers, but Boudreau has said there will be no such quick hook this year. “I told Jose last week, Boudreau said. “He knows and he’s earned it. This is an entirely different situation from last year. He’s been our guy for a while, and his last loss was in early January. Obviously he could lose again, but last year during the last 10 games or so his game wasn’t anywhere near where it has been this year. There will be no short leash. He’s our guy.”

Added Theodore: “A lot of people counted me out when the season started for different reasons. It’s been a challenge for me to have a solid season since training camp and to have a chance to play in the playoffs. With the team we have, that’s where you want to be is in the playoffs, and now finally they are starting.”

As an aside, this season Theodore only appeared in one game against the team he previously won the Hart and Vezina trophies with, allowing four goals on 25 shots in relief of Michael Neuvirth. For his career Theodore is 2-1-1 with a 4.05 GAA and .877 save percentage vs. the Habs.

Montreal Lineup Notes
The Canadiens boast a small and quick batch of forwards led by the likes of Mike Cammalleri (5-9, 182), Brian Gionta (5-7, 173) and Tomas Plekanec (5-11, 198). Even Scott Gomez, who is solidly built, is by no means a giant at 5-11, 202. You might think that against a bigger team this could provide an advantage, but the Caps love the up-tempo game and have one of the league’s more mobile defensive units, so that should prove to be a wash in this series. If anything, Washington’s ability to match the Habs’ speed and wear them down with physical play from the likes of Ovechkin, Knuble, Jason Chimera and Matt Bradley – along with the defensemen – should provide the Caps with a big advantage.

Gomez always seems to play well against the Caps, and he recorded three assists in Montreal’s last two regular-season outings. Gionta scored a goal in each of the last three games, while defenseman Andrei Markov notched a goal and two assists in the Canadiens’ final contest vs. Toronto. Cammalleri has struggled since returning from a knee injury that he suffered in January. He managed just two assists in the team’s final nine games and has not scored a goal since January 23. Still, Cammalleri is another player who has fared well against the Caps in the past.

“They are quick and they are all proven,” Boudreau said of Montreal’s forwards. “When you are a small guy and one of the better players in the league, like Gionta or Cammalleri or Plekanec, you have to be special in terms of your drive and determination. It’s hard for small guys to make it in this league unless they are special. To do what they’ve done at this level they’ve had to be willing to pay the price and do the things that the bigger guys will do. I anticipate them to be at the top of their game.”

In goal, Carey Price played all four games against Washington this year, posting a 2-1-1 record and a 3.38 GAA. Jaroslav Halak, who did not play against the Caps, has allowed four goals in each of his last two starts. For the Canadiens, defenseman Paul Mara, who scored a big goal for the Rangers against Washington in last year’s playoffs, and power-play igniter Glenn Metropolit, a former Cap, are out with injuries.

One of the key matchups of the series will be Habs’ defenseman Markov against Ovechkin. Markov missed the first two contests against the Caps this year, but returned to play the final two games, helping hold Ovechkin to a total of two points in those outings. In the Feb. 10 game, a 6-5 Canadiens’ overtime victory, Markov logged more than 30 minutes of ice time, frequently matching up against Ovechkin, who played more than 29 minutes that night.

The Breakdown
Montreal has the type of team that can give the Caps fits on a given night. They are a quick, pesky team that can really press an opponent on the forecheck and capitalize quickly on mistakes. Montreal also has a solid, veteran defensive unit that is not prone to making a lot of mistakes. The issue here is whether the Canadiens can hold up in a long series against a bigger, more physical Washington team that is just as fast, more potent offensively and more skilled. When you look at it that way, the prospects don’t look encouraging for the Habs. The two real keys to the series are the willingness of the Caps’ forwards to commit to playing hard at both ends and the play of Halak. If Halak is able to play at a world-class level for the length of the series, Montreal has a chance to pull off the upset. But, even if Halak is at the top of his game and Washington is solid at both ends, the Caps just have too much firepower for the Canadiens to compete.

Season Series
Each team went 2-1-1 in this year’s series, with Montreal snapping the Caps’ 14-game winning streak in that 6-5 OT victory Feb. 10 and also winning in regulation Nov. 10. Washington won in a shootout Nov. 28 and earned a win in regulation Jan. 5. Said Boudreau: “Quite frankly they should have beaten us three out of four this year. It looks better because there are two games where we pulled the goalie and scored late to force overtime. It could have easily been 3-1 or 4-0 in their favor, so I’m sure that they have loads of confidence against us.”

Even Steven
Washington is the best 5-on-5 team in the league, having recorded 213 goals, while the Habs were the worst full-strength squad with 132 tallies. Again, if the Caps forwards maintain their defensive integrity, Montreal has no chance. Overall, Washington led the NHL in goals-per-game at 3.82, with the Habs ranking 26th at 2.56.

Special Teams
With the Caps leading the league in power-play percentage at 25.2 percent and the Canadiens ranking second at 21.8 percent, on the surface special teams play looks to be a a wash. Not so fast, though. The Caps draw a lot more penalties, primarily because of their speed, size and skill. They received 52 more man advantages than the Habs did. However, Washington has struggled for stretches on the penalty kill this season, ranking among the top 10 at home for most of the year, but among the bottom 10 away from Verizon Center. So the team that is more disciplined and stays out of the penalty box should be able to benefit substantially.

Washington has been nearly unbeatable on home ice the second half of the season, so potentially getting four games at Verizon Center is a big advantage. The Caps also have learned from slow starts in their last three playoff series and seem to be primed to avoid that this time around. Several of the Caps’ healthy scratches would fit nicely into the Habs’ lineup, so there is a decided overall depth advantage if the series goes beyond five games and injuries become a factor.

On the other hand, Montreal has nothing to lose as an eighth seed and can draw from its 2002 upset of top-seeded Boston as inspiration. The Canadiens also have a much richer postseason history than the Caps, but most of that was forged a long time ago – and the Habs have a richer playoff history than everyone else in the NHL. If they can steal a win early in D.C., the Canadiens will return home to a jacked-up fanbase that may be able to push them far enough beyond their perceived limits to make this a series.

Washington wins in six. Halak will play well enough to help Montreal steal a couple of wins, but the constant offensive barrage from the Caps will ultimately wear him down. Washington will continue its recent commitment to defense and limit the Habs’ scoring opportunities, which paired with the Caps’ firepower will render Halk helpless no matter how well he plays. If Washington gets off to a fast start and Halak’s confidence waivers, this could be a massacre.

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