Friday, April 23, 2010

No Time for Messing Around

Tonight should be interesting.

Everything can change in the blink of an eye. Everywhere you look the media has said that the Washington Capitals have a stranglehold on their NHL Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against Montreal, but if the Canadiens can pull out Game 5 tonight at Verizon Center the mantra will change to, “The pressure’s on the Caps.”

So, for that and other reasons, from the Washington perspective at least, it makes sense for the Caps to do everything in their power to close out the series immediately. If the Caps were to win the series they’d face Philadelphia, which finished off its five-game upset of the Devils last night, in the second round. This time of year an extra day or two of rest can be very important.

And don’t think that, at least from a distance, Washington didn’t notice that defending-champ Pittsburgh first had its game extended an extra 2-1/2 periods and then its season by at least another contest thanks to a gritty effort from an Ottawa club that faced a predicament similar to Montreal’s.

“I watched a hockey game last night and Ottawa played that way – with fire and passion and desire to win, and I think they out outplayed their opponent,” Caps forward Brooks Laich said earlier today. “Montreal is going to come in here and do the same thing. They are going to work as hard as they can and play as well as they can, so for us, we will need to be at our best to win.”

Added defenseman Jeff Schultz: “We’d like to finish it out tonight so that we can give ourselves a couple of days of rest while the other series play out.”

Most everyone expects the Habs to come out flying, much as they have the past two games, but based on the fact that Montreal has been unable to solve Caps’ replacement netminder Semyon Varlamov early and then and has worn down in the second half of those contests, it might be a better idea for them to play a less-aggressive, counter-attacking style that utilizes their speed and quickness to clog passing lanes and create transition opportunities off of turnovers. While that type of strategy might give Montreal the best chance of competing for a full 60 minutes, the danger is, especially with the inconsistent goaltending the Habs have gotten, that the high-powered Caps’ offensive attack might be too much for them to withstand. And certainly the Canadiens can’t afford to fall behind by a couple of goals.

“I think the first 10 minutes will be very important,” Alex Ovechkin said. “I think they will push us very hard and try to go down and score goals. If they can score it will be good for them. We just have to play our game.”

As the series has progressed, Washington has been able to play its style of hockey more comfortably. One school of thought heading into this series was that the Caps’ combination of speed, size and strength would ultimately wear the Habs down over the course of many games. That certainly has appeared to be the case thus far. Washington scored four goals in the third period and overtime of their Game 2 comeback, four goals in the second period of Game 3 and four goals in the third period of Game 4. Washington scored three markers in the first 111 minutes of the series and 16 in the 142 minutes since.

“We want to wear them down early in the game and tire them oust,” said Schultz. “It’s not like we are going to go out of our way to lay a big check on a guy, we’ll just do it as if we were playing any game.”

It may be easier for both teams to approach tonight as if it were just any game and to play a little more free and relaxed. After all, Washington has some margin of error now with a two-game lead, and the Habs have nothing to lose facing a 3-1 deficit. The problem is that if the Caps do falter they will have to return to a crazy environment and face a team that would definitely be re-energized and dangerous.

In past years you might almost expect a less-mature Washington team to come out tonight thinking that the series was wrapped up, but after having its first three playoff series under Bruce Boudreau extended to seven games, this Capitals squad seems to have the big picture in mind and to have developed the killer instinct found inside all championship contenders.

“Everybody talks about killer instinct,” Boudreau said, “but I think that every team wants to go and finish a series off and not let the other team hang around and make it go six or seven games. So the phrase killer instinct, I don’t know. If you don’t win does that mean you don’t have it? That you don’t want to win? I think we want to win as much as they do.”

Washington has not been able to close out a series in Game 5 since they handed another Canadian foe, Ottawa, a five-game setback in 1998 en route to an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals. Ironically the Caps chased Senators’ goaltender Damian Rhodes, who was replaced at one point by Ron Tugnutt, in that series. Washington dropped a potential fifth-game clincher to Buffalo that same year in the conference finals before clinching on the road in Game 6. All-time the Caps are 8-18 overall in fifth games and 5-11 at home. The Caps are 2-6 in fifth games when leading a series 3-1 and are 3-3 in series in which they have led by that same margin.

To force a Game 6, Montreal will have to figure out Varlamov, who is now 3-0 in the series with a 2.49 GAA and .920 save percentage. On the other side it appears as though Halak will replace Price, whose emotions got the best of him late in Game 4, for Montreal. Both goaltenders have similar numbers for the series, with Price posting a 3.98 GAA and .898 save percentage compared to Halak’s 4.06 and .887. Halak did steal Game 1 for the Habs in DC with a spectacular 45-save performance, which along with Price’s meltdown at Bell Centre, made him the obvious choice for Canadiens’ coach Jacques Martin.

“That’s the first I’ve heard (that Halak will start,)” Boudreau said. “Until I see whoever’s coming out there first tonight I won’t know who is in or out.”

Regardless of who’s in net, the Caps are hoping that a more relaxed approach tonight might help them iron out their power-play issues and allow offensive stars Alex Semin and Mike Green to break out of their mini-slumps. Washington, which led the league in power-play percentage this season, has converted on just one of 19 extra-man opportunities thus far. The Caps did break through for an Ovechkin extra-man goal in the first period Wednesday, but that was in an unsettled situation. Their patience, decision-making and puck movement improved as the night wore on, however.

As for Semin and Green, both showed signs of life in Game 4, with Semin feathering a great pass to Ovechkin for the go-ahead goal in the third period and Green playing with much more confidence at both ends of the ice. Green, today announced as a finalist for the Norris Trophy, has an assist in each of the past two contests. Maybe the Norris announcement, paired with the two-game lead, will allow him to settle down and contribute more tonight.

“There’s a lot of pressure,” Boudreaux said, “and the players want to do so good and anticipate this for so long that it doesn’t always work out so well. Then they relax a little bit and get into their comfort zone and things start to come a little easier.”

So far Washington hasn’t needed much in the way of offense from Semin, Green or the power play. Boyd Gordon has helped the Caps score more shorthanded than extra-man goals thus far, and the Caps third and fourth lines have combined for 13 points and are a plus-7. That, along with the stellar defensive play of Tom Poti (playoff-leading plus-8) and rookie John Carlson (plus-7) has made Washington a tough team to beat.

Now, if Green and Semin can get rolling the Caps will truly be the Cup contender Many of us always thought they were.

Caps’ Lineup Notes:

It appears as though Washington will use the same forward combinations for the third straight game. On defense it is not clear whether Shaone Morrisonn will return. If he doesn’t, Tyler Sloan will play in his place for the second straight game.





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