The Capitals begin the two month marathon toward hockey immortality Thursday night against the Montreal Canadiens. Coming off their first Presidents Trophy, the Capitals enter the playoffs as the number one seed in the Eastern Conference and are primed to make a run at another piece of hardware that has proved oh so elusive in the past, the Stanley Cup. It has been nothing short of a record breaking season for the Caps. The Caps set new records for wins (54) and points (121). The 121 points the Caps collected this year ranks as the 6th highest point total in NHL history. Additionally, the Capitals are the only non-original six team to eclipse the 120 p0int mark. This is the second year in succession the Caps have set franchise records, but disappointment in the playoffs rendered last season’s records long forgotten. This year will be no different.
For the first time in team history, the Caps will play the Canadiens in the playoffs. Never have these two teams met in the post season. This series will lack the bitterness and hatred, at least initially, that a series with the Penguins or a Montreal/Boston series would have, but there are other story lines that are sure to make this one of the more entertaining series during the first round. Jose Theodore will make his return to Monteal following his MVP and Vezina winning 2001 campaign; this series will be held in two of the loudest buildings in the NHL; Alex Ovechkin against fellow countryman Andrei Markov; the Caps power play against the Habs power play; and a little trash talk between Tomas Plekanec and Jose Theodore is the cherry on top.
Here is how the teams matchup:
The Caps lead the league in scoring with 318 goals as well as a +85 goal differential. This teams scores, scores, and scores. No matter the situation. This series will pit the top scoring team in the NHL against the 26th ranked team in terms of scoring. The Caps scored 213 goals during 5-on-5 play. This is three more than the Canadiens scored total. The Habs scored just 210 goals on the season. Alex Ovechkin will once again garner most of the attention. Ovechkin is coming off a season in which most are used to seeing. 50+ goals, 100+ points – just another day in the office for Ovechkin. This year was also the coming out party for Nick Backstrom. Backstrom reached the 100 point plateau for the first time in his career. Backstrom scored a career high 33 goals, and registered 68 assists – good for the third most in the NHL. Mike Green again lead the league in scoring amongst NHL defenseman. Green set a new career high in points with 76. Finally last but certainly not least was Alex Semin who also achieved a new career high for goals with 40.
The Habs scored just 210 goals this season, ranking 26th in the NHL. The Habs had just three players score more than 20 goals and one player reach the 70 point mark. The Caps had seven 20-goal scorers.
Big edge for the Caps.
When pointing out weaknesses and reasons why the Caps will fall short this year in their quest for the Cup, pundits all around point to team defense. Most point to the fact that the Caps high octane high risk style of play is not conducive to the tight checking style games seen in the playoffs. The Caps finished the season ranked 16th in team defense allowing 2.77 goals. Interestingly enough, despite the so-called poor defense demonstrated by the Caps, last year’s defending champions (a team I will not name) finished the season with a team GAA of 2.84. So it really boils down to whether your goalie is hot at the right time. The big surprise for the Caps on defense this year was the maturity of Jeff Schultz. If you recall, Schultz was practically benched after game 1 of last year’s first round series against the Rangers. Schultz took his medicine and finished the season with an NHL leading +50. The Capitals will still have to better this post season. The Habs didn’t finish much better in team defense, however I can’t give the edge to a team with the 25th ranked penalty kill.
Edge to the Canadiens
The Caps boast the number one power play in the NHL firing at a rate of 25.2%. Coincidentally the Canadiens’ power play ranked 2nd in the NHL. But the distance between the Caps and the rest of the field was enormous. The Capitals could have gone 0-47 down the stretch on the power play just to fall back even with the 2nd ranked Canadiens’ power play. The Capitals scored 22 more goals than the second ranked Canadiens. So the moral of the story is simple. The Canadiens must stay out of the box if they wish to have a chance in this series. In fact, most would agree this is the number one rule regardless of who the Caps’ opponent is. Teams must stay out of the box against this team. The Caps number one unit on the power play has three of the top 15 scorers in the NHL and 4 of the top 21 scorers. It is a dangerous proposition to allow this team to be a man up. The Canadiens can be just as dangerous on the power play, especially with a healthy Andrei Markov. Pairing the second ranked power play against the 25th ranked penalty kill is a dangerous scenario for the Caps and a main reason why this series could be longer than expected.
Edge to the Caps
The Capitals boast the 25th ranked penalty kill in the league and killed just 79% on the road. This is a huge Achilles heal for the Caps. If the Caps hope to make a run for the Cup, let alone escape the first round against a powerful Montreal power play, this must improve.
Edge to the Canadiens
There has been much speculation as to whom Bruce Boudreau would tap on the shoulder and name the playoff starter for the Caps. Apparently this speculation started outside locker room door because Boudreau told Jose Theodore he would be the playoff starter a week ago. Theodore has been absolutely fabulous over the last three months. Theodore has not lost a 60 minute game since January 12. He is now 20-0-3 in his last 23 appearances with a SV% of .927. So why the contempt for Jose? It is largely unfounded. Theodore’s return to Montreal is sure to be a rambunctious scene. The boo birds will be loud and boistrous.
Montreal will still get the edge in the goaltending department as the strength of the Caps offense certainly makes playing goal a bit easier. Jaroslav Halak finished the year with a 2.40 GAA and a .924 save percentage. Playing on the 26th ranked offensive team in the league certainly makes those numbers a bit more meaningful.
Edge to the Canadiens
Secondary scoring will be the difference. The Caps are the deepest team in the NHL. Boasting four lines that can score will be a challenge for the Canadiens to contain. The Canadiens may be able to contain the league’s most dangerous line – the line of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Knuble, but the Caps can put the puck in the net no matter the personnel. Look for the likes of Eric Fehr, Jason Chimera, and Matt Bradley to have a big series. David Steckel and Eric Belanger will continue to win face offs and provide opportunities for linemates to contribute. The addition of Joe Corvo will provide even further offense from the backline in combination with Mike Green. The Caps boasted seven 20-goal scorers this year.
Ultimately the Capitals offense will prove to powerful in this series. As long as the Jose Theodore carries his weight and the Caps keep the Montreal power play off the ice, the Caps should move into the next round.
Prediction: Caps in six games.
About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.