Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Round I: Caps vs. Canadiens Series Preview

Series A: Washington Capitals (54-28; 121 points; 1st Southeast Division, 1st Eastern Conference, 1st Overall) vs. Montreal Canadiens (39-43; 88 points; 4th Northeast Division, 8th Eastern Conference, 19th Overall):

Welcome Ladies and Gentlemen to unchartered waters for the Washington Capitals Franchise. Never before in the history of this franchise have the Caps been so heavily favored entering the playoffs. Usually the Caps are at best considered a darkhorse contender. Never before in the history of the franchise have the Caps had expectations this high.  Anything less than an appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals is going to be considered a bitter disappointment by the fans, the players, the coaches, the front office, and the press.  However, never before in the history of the franchise have the Washington Capitals had a chance this good to win the Stanley Cup.  The NHL likes to use the marketing line, "is this the year?"  For the Caps, it has never been better and may not be this way again for a few years.

So the first question we must confront as we look at the Caps First Round Series against the Montreal Canadiens is, how will the Caps react to the increased expectations and a prime chance to finally win it all?  Because let's face it, us long suffering Caps fans know that the history isn't good, there's a reason why Khornball coined the phrase "coking dogs."  The last time the Caps had a chance this good was 1986 and yet Brian Murray figured out a way to lose to the New York Rangers in six games in the second round.  But that year, the Caps didn't emerge as a favorite until the Rangers had knocked off the Philadelphia Flyers in the first round.  The Flyer finished with the 2nd best record in the NHL and the Caps were 3rd overall just three points behind them and 29 points ahead of the Rangers.  The Caps are 33 points better than the Canadiens this year, by far the largest advantage in points the Caps have had against a playoff opponent.  And turning our attention to the current crop of Washington Capitals, they haven't handled high expectations well themselves.  We can understand going the distance in the First Round against Philadelphia in 2008, but the Caps lack of maturity last year caused them to need all seven games to eliminate the Rangers.  Aside from the alleged curse of the Presidents' Trophy, there are legitimate reasons to be concerned heading into this series.

The matchup for the Caps in the First Round this year isn't the greatest in the world.  Of the four possible opponents the Caps could have faced heading into the final days of the season, we would have preferred Boston and Philadelphia before Montreal.    The Bruins can't score to save their lives and the Caps would have exploited Philadelphia's goaltending.  Also consider that there really isn't any kind of rivalry between the Caps and Canadiens.  Yeah, Jose "Alvin, Simon," Theodore has his own ax to grind, but there just isn't any bad blood between these two teams.  That isn't to say that this is a bad matchup for the Caps.  The Caps were the best team in the league in 5-on-5 situations, Montreal, ranks 22nd, the worst of any team in the playoffs.  This is good news for the Caps because in the playoffs there are supposed to be fewer penalties called.  While that neuters the Caps top ranked Power Play, the first time in franchise history the Caps finished the season ranked #1 on the Power Play, it also saves the Caps Penalty Killers who have to face the runner-up Power Play unit in Montreal.

It can't be said enough though, the Caps need to stay out of the penalty box to win this series.  While the Caps actually had the fewest Penalty Minutes this year 920, the previous record was 951 set in 1975-1976, the Penalty Killing was a liability all year long and the Caps all too frequently took bad penalties at bad times.  Our defenders have a distinct size advantage over the Montreal forwards but in order for them to take advantage of that, they need to play 5-on-5 hockey as much as possible.

Secondly, the Caps need to manage their own expectations.  The Caps are not going to start a 16 game winning streak tomorrow night, though it would be extremely cool if they did.  The Caps are not going to win this series in just 1, 2, or even 3 games.  The Caps need to win four games before losing four games to advance.  But most of all, the Caps cannot get frustrated when things don't go their way and the going gets tough.  If they stick to their system they will win this series.

Yes, Montreal struggled down the stretch, falling from the 6th seed to the 8th seed by losing seven of their last ten and last three in a row.  But Montreal is in the playoffs and that does mean something because there are 14 other teams that would gladly trade places with them right now.  If there is one thing Montreal has on their side it is that fear is a great motivator.  Everybody knows that when the Caps are on, they're practically unbeatable and when they're on and motivated, they can easily embarrass people.  Say what you want about the Canadiens, they don't want to be embarrassed, that's why they struggled against teams like Carolina and Toronto but played the Caps close all season long.  They know that if they don't play well, the Caps will embarrass them.  Goaltenders Jaroslav Halak or even Carey Price could find an obscene level of play and just shut the Caps high-powered offense down by themselves.  And if the Caps can't stay out of the box, they will give Montreal more than enough chances to keep the series close and possibly win it.

However, we feel that we should mention that the Caps have something to prove themselves.  For two years now the Caps have been criticized for not being willing to pay the price to win in the playoffs.  While Montreal is not Philadelphia or the Rangers, if the Caps can make quick work of Montreal, they should answer some of those doubts.  Montreal has the 5th best offense of the Eastern Conference Playoff teams and 26th overall which means that the Caps much maligned defense and goaltending don't have to be the greatest in the world to win this series or win it quickly.  A quick series would also answer the lingering questions about their maturity.  Going down 2-0 this year is going to get all of these questions and talk of curses at a fever pitch.

So how can the Caps just simply win this series?  Well again, stay out of the penalty box.  Anything more than two Power Plays allowed is asking for trouble, especially at home because the Canadiens had the best Power Play on the road this season.  The fewer penalties the Caps have to kill, the better.  Secondly, they need to take Montreal seriously.  We know Montreal is going to take us seriously, we have to match that or we'll end up behind the 8-Ball again.  Stick to the system and the Caps will prevail.  Use our size to our advantage.  Our defensemen aren't known for being big hitters but against a smaller crop of Montreal forwards, the Caps need to punish them in front of the net.  Finally, maintain the focus on the goal of winning the Cup.  This is only the first round so the Cup won't be won by beating Montreal.  As a matter of fact, the odds are pretty good that many of the questions surrounding this team will remain even if the Caps pull off a sweep.  However, the Caps can't let the crowds in D.C. and Montreal get to them and get caught up in the moment.  We're still two months away from handing out the Stanley Cup.

So what's the bottom line, we think we're too good to lose this series.  While the Caps should, they don't need to bring their A Game to win this series in quick fashion.  We'd like to say Caps in five but recent history has us a little concerned so we'll play it safe and say Caps in six.

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