We are LIVE at Peerless Central, surveying the landscape, searching every corner, scouring the fine grains of sand that are the bits of information that will lead this prognosticator to provide YOU, the discerning reader with the only pick you will need as the Caps begin their journey, their expedition, their quest, if you will, that hopefully will end this June with a Stanley Cup and a half-day off of work for Caps fans to attend a parade in downtown Washington.
The quest begins on Thursday when the Caps meet the Montreal Canadiens in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal round. The Caps are the consensus pick to make quick work of the Canadiens, a team they finished 33 points ahead of in the regular season. These teams are separated by more than just a one versus eight seed. And we’ll take a look at a few reasons why.
The view descending from 30,000 feet… The overall numbers look like this…
The Caps have the largest goal differential per game of any club in the NHL (+1.05). That differential is more than a quarter of a goal better than the second place team in the league, and that team is not Montreal (it’s Chicago, at +0.72). Montreal finished the season with a goal differential of -0.10, which is only seventh best among the eight teams in the Eastern Conference playoff draw (Ottawa is eighth). The differences persist as you break the game into periods, as the summary below indicates…
Special teams… The summary also indicates that Montreal, for all the ink devoted to its formidable power play, struggles at home with the man advantage (24th in the league). If anything, this is weakness matched against weakness – a weak home power play for Montreal against the weak road penalty kill for the Caps. And while the Canadiens have the top road power play in the league this season at 28.3%, it will be matched against a penalty kill that is respectable enough at home in Washington’s (83.2%, 14th in the league). Montreal’s advantages on special teams, while they seem rather substantial overall, don’t look quite so when broken down into their home and road segments.
But where the special teams battle, and the series, could turn is in power play opportunities. The Caps penalty kill is what it is. Overall it is iffy (to be charitable about it), although it is at least respectable at home. When a team has a penalty kill as undistinguished as that of the Caps, the key is in limiting opportunities. And in that, keep this in mind. When allowing the opponent three or fewer power plays, the Caps are 29-13 (overtime and shootout losses counting as losses). But since the first of the year they are 19-5 in those situations.
The Montreal power play in this series might be the single most overblown topic of discussion. The Montreal power play is very efficient. Almost as efficient as the Caps’ power play. But that is, if you will, an “output” measure. Games turn on “outcomes,” and for purposes of athletic competition, the relevant outcome here is “goals.” The fact is, no team scored more power play goals than the Caps at 5-on-4 (69), and no team scored more power play goals than the Caps at 5-on-3 (eight). The Caps scored 22 more power play goals than did the Canadiens this season. If the Caps can limit Montreal’s opportunities on the power play (the Canadiens were 16-17-5 in games in which they had three or fewer opportunities), a low penalty kill rate will not, for lack of a better term, “kill” them. It won’t be the penalty killing rate that will be the barometer as much as the shorthanded situations the Caps have to face.
Full and even strength… Another way to put this is, the Caps have to keep the Canadiens from getting multiple power play goals scored in games. Limiting the Habs to something equal to or less than one a game is likely to be fatal to the Canadiens. Why? Because no team in the NHL has scored fewer goals at 5-on-5 this season. Dead last… against the team that finished first in 5-on-5 goals scored. In fact, the goal differential here is virtually a goal a game (+0.99) in favor of the Caps. And Montreal cannot count on defensive performance at 5-on-5 to balance this disparity out, since the Caps have allowed fewer goals at 5-on-5 (136 versus 146).
If there is something that the Caps are going to want to avoid, it is a familiar frustration to Caps fans – four-on-four situations. The Canadiens finished the season a plus-7 (11 goals for, four against) in such situations, while the Caps finished minus-8 (five goals for, 13 against). The power play efficiency, the four-on-four advantage… it is evidence of a team that is small and quick, able to take advantage of situations in which there is more open ice. The key here is don’t give the Canadiens those kinds of open ice opportunities.
The series… The Canadiens and Capitals each won two games in this series. Three of the games were decided by one goal, two of them in extra time. The other game, although a two-goal decision, was a one-goal game until Alexander Semin scored a goal with 2:02 remaining for the final 4-2 margin in favor of the Capitals. These teams have played things close. Here is a look at the four games…
Yes, the teams have split 14 goals, but how they got there is a snapshot of the advantages and the problems the Caps might have in this series. First, as Bruce Boudreau has already commented, “They've killed us on [the power play]. They move the puck, they shoot and they go to the net. Hopefully we'll be able to stay out of the box." In the four-game series, they were just unsuccessful enough at that, allowing the Canadiens 14 power play opportunities (3.5 a game), with which Montreal scored five power play goals (35.7 percent). Meanwhile, the Caps were outscoring the Canadiens 11-9 at even strength and were unleashing at least 34 shots on goal in three of the four games (they lost two of them).
Goaltenders… The odd thing about this series is that the goaltenders that played the lion’s share of minutes for their respective teams will not be the principals in this series. Carey Price got the call in all four contests. Jaroslav Halak, who gets the nod for Game 1, did not play a single minute in any of the four games. Jose Theodore played grand total of 37 minutes over the four games, but was named on Tuesday as the Game 1 starter for the Caps.
Halak will bring a career record of 3-2-0, 2.60, .905 against the Caps into this series. He has a total of 97 minutes of playoff experience spread over three games and lost the only playoff start he has. Theodore is 2-1-1, 4.09, .877 against Montreal for his career. He also has 49 games of playoff experience (19-27, 2.79, .912, and one shutout), having not lost a first round series in four trips as the number one goalie. The ominous fact about Halak coming into this series is that after shutting out Philadelphia and Buffalo in consecutive starts he allowed 11 in three games against teams that finished no better than 11th in the Eastern Conference. He is about to step up against an opponent several notches higher in weight class.
Caps forwards vs. Montreal defense… It is one thing to have three 25-plus goal scorers on the top line, as the Caps do, but the depth the Caps have is such that they have three 15-plus goal scorers (full year) on what could be their third line of Tomas Fleischmann (23), Eric Belanger (15 with Minnesota and Washington), and Jason Chimera (15 with Columbus and Washington). You can probably pencil in Andrei Markov for the minutes Montreal will need against the Backstrom line, paired with Marc-Andre Bergeron (at least according to a Canadian Press report). Both are big point producers in their own right, especially on the power play, but Bergeron is sixth among the club’s defensemen (40 games minimum) in plus-minus. Given the Caps strengths at 5-on-5, he has to show an ability to hold his own in that aspect.
The second pair for Montreal – Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek – are experienced (more than 2,000 regular seasons between them), but the flip side of that is both are 36 years old. How they match up against the Caps’ offensive push, whether against the second or third line, might be the 5-on-5 fault line that breaks for the Caps. The Caps aren’t likely to intimidate this group by forechecking them into a lot of mistakes, but there might be concerns about the Canadien defensemen’s ability to keep up with the Caps transition game. Montreal forwards are going to have to provide a lot of support to slow the Caps down in neutral zone ice.
Montreal forwards vs. Washington defense… Montreal is not going to ice a lot of size on the top two lines of forwards. Benoit Pouliot is 6’3”, but he is a lanky sort. Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta round out that line, neither standing taller than six feet, and Gomez barely hits the 200 pound mark. The Tomas Plekanec – Mike Cammalleri – Andrei Kostitsyn line doesn’t’ bring much size, either. So, they have to take advantage of quickness against a Caps defense that will ice no one shorter than six feet and not less than 200 pounds. Plekanec, Gomez, Gionta, and Cammalleri also comprise the Canadiens’ top power play scoring forwards (all with at least 15 points), another indicator of the advantages of small, quick forwards on a more open ice surface. It is an advantage that Montreal can exploit to the extent the Caps permit it by taking too many penalties. But here is something the Habs are going to miss that is overlooked in all this power play talk. Of the 57 power play goals that Montreal has this season, Glen Metropolit has ten of them, and he is out with a shoulder injury.
Players you expect to do well… and have to:
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
Let’s face it. As deep and as talented as the Caps are, the bullseye is on Ovechkin. As much as his production, he has to lead by example in his effort at both ends of the ice. He has made great strides this year in improving his two way play, but this series begins what is really the final exam in that regard.
Montreal: Scott Gomez
Gomez has two goals since the Olympic break, none in his last 14 games. He has a total of six points (all assists) in his last ten games. He is the second-leading scorer for the Canadiens, but his 12 goals for the season is his lowest level since the 2001-2002 season, his third in the league, and a far cry from the 33 he had in 2005-2006. Caps fans will be hoping he remains quiet in that regard. If he is, Montreal doesn’t have much of a chance of outscoring the Caps.
Players you might not think about… but should:
Washington: David Steckel
Little things get magnified in the playoffs, and one of the things that will bear watching is how well Steckel does in draws, especially in the defensive zone, and particularly against the Montreal power play. If the Caps present the Canadiens with power play opportunities, they have to take precious seconds away by getting possession of the puck and clearing it.
Montreal: Maxim Lapierre
Lapierre is not a stranger to some of the Caps. He was an important cog in the Hamilton Bulldogs’ win over the Hershey Bears in the 2007 Calder Cup final, when the Bears dressed the likes of Jeff Schultz, Tomas Fleischmann, David Steckel, and Mike Green. Lapierre is a somewhat abrasive sort that is perhaps best equipped to get the Caps off their game. Oh, let’s just say it… he’s a pain in the ass.
There are more than a few observers who think this series will not last long. Well, let’s think this through and remember which franchise we’re talking about here. The Caps have won nine seven-game series in franchise history. Never have they swept one. Only twice did the series go only five games. There are no sure things when it comes to the Caps, but in the end Montreal is coming into the series with a hope (that they get a lot of power play chances) and a prayer (that Halak finds his inner Dryden). It will not be nearly enough against a team with many more weapons.
Caps in five