Tonight at Le Centre Bell in Montreal the Washington Capitals will face-off against, arguably, the most storied franchise in NHL history, the 24 time Stanley Cup Champion Montreal Canadiens. It will be the first of a three game roads trip before the Olympics Break starts on February 14th. No one really needs to talk about how the Capitals will be trying to continue their current 14 game winning streak. In fact, I've thought about it and frankly no one should talk about it at all. Franchise records ought to be taken in and only moderate self-satisfaction ought to be realized. Yes, I've thought about it and decided that, like when I used to be a competitive swimmer, and I would achieve a personal best, a franchise record is nothing more or less. Even when that franchise record is the 2nd or 3rd best of all time; how excited and cocky does the US Swimming Team get when a newly assembled Freestyle Relay Team goes out and swims their best time ever as a team and it's the third or fourth best time ever? See what I mean, it's not like they set a new World Record, or in the Caps case, a new league all time record. I'm not suggesting we belittle it, I'm not even suggesting that it be entirely ignored. I am saying the fact is the last 14 games like the remaining 22 regular season games and hopefully upcoming four rounds of the playoffs are all nothing more or less then steps in the journey to the real goal. The only reason to mention "The Streak" when looking at any of these games is that in some cases it provides greater motivation for the Capitals opponents on any given night. The only real reason to celebrate any sort of regular season success is for the possible/arguable benefits that home-ice advantage may provide a team during the most grueling post-season quest in professional sports - the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Speaking of the Stanley Cup Playoffs and the Stanley Cup, there's also really no reason to talk much about that right now as well. It's only February, a snowy February at that here in the DC Metro Area, which further emphasizes it's a long way to June. In the 34 prior seasons of the Capitals existence they've never won the League Championship, they've only been to the finals once. This year's team is excellent, and they have been playing inspired hockey virtually the entire season. They've been doing that --- (you know what's coming) --- one game at a time. That's what they need to continue to do from now through the end of the Regular Season and then of course through the playoffs. The Canadiens, of any franchise in the NHL know this. There's no way you can be a professional hockey player on the Montreal Roster and not understand that, the history of the franchise and the pressure playing in the media circus that is the NHL in French Canada ensure you never forget it.
The Canadiens, who have been sputtering by with a slightly over 0.500 record and staying on the Eastern Conference Playoff Race bubble for most of the season, would like nothing more than to slay the dragon that the NHL Leading Washington Capitals are tonight. Further this is the fourth and final time the teams meet this regular season, Washington is 2-1-0 and Montreal is 1-1-1 in the prior meetings. Montreal has and is taking pride in the fact that during their prior meetings this season they've were pretty well able to contain Alex Ovechkin with team efforts. However, tonight, those efforts will be complicated by their current injury situation. Montreal has five players trying to battle back from their current injuries: Mike Cammalleri, Marc-Andre Bergerron, Andrei Kostitsyn, Paul Mara. and Benoit Pouliot. For Washington, Defenseman John Erskine is currently out with an injury. Perhaps more significant for motivation is this simple fact, the Canadiens need the points more, will that mean they'll actually want them more, or they will be able to capture them both tonight? That idea seems harder to grasp looking at the numbers, especially the 5 on 5 numbers, though that could be said of many teams in the NHL if you were currently comparing them to Washington. That, of course , is why the play the games on the ice.
The Caps left the DC Metro area yesterday afternoon to avoid any possible travel issues to Montreal today, looking out all our windows here in the DC Metro, that appears to have been a very wise decision. It also gets them banded together and gives them a chance to start the three game road trip off without incident. Given they have back to backs - tonight in Montreal and tomorrow night in Ottawa, avoiding travel complications through some smart planning was even smarter no matter how these games turn out. It should also help the coaching staff keep the team focused. In addition to the press buzz about the streak, several of the Caps key players have this little event looming in Vancouver starting next week and no body coaches, players of fans, want them to loose focus and start thinking about hem too soon.
Keys for the game tonight.
For Montreal: 1) Solid team defense, including having the forwards very involved and back-checking relentlessly when required to do so. 2) Their snipers Tomas Plekanec, Brian Gionta, to have good nights to make up for the lost goal scoring abilities and contributions of the injury depleted forward ranks, they may also need someone like Scott Gomez to up his contributions if they find themselves trying to keep up the the Capitals.3) They need solid defensive performances or better from both Andrei Markov and Hal Gill as these two munch both their own and many of Bergeron's usual minutes on the blue line. 4) Solid goaltending, I'd expect the Canadiens to give the start to Jaroslav Halak who despite loosing his prior start in Boston 3-0, still has a very good SV% (0.927 - 4th best in the NHL right now) through 29 games played in. Finally, 5) even with all four of hte above with the current injuries to their team, if the Caps play their game and do it well, Montreal probably needs a couple of bounces to go their way thanks to the hockey gods, unless Halak decides it's time for his fourth shutout of the season and makes that happen.
For Washington: 1) I've said it several ways above but focus and execute their game plan. 2)Along with maintaining their focus the Caps will likely need to play a patient disciplined game to win tonight. With the injuries Montreal has and their early discussions about team defense, that likely means the Caps will see stacked neutral zone traps as well as 1-2-2 traps often this evening. They'll need to stay with and execute their game plan all 60 minutes tonight as Montreal will be determined NOT to beat themselves. 3) Sound defense from the blue line corps and continued sound goaltending from Jose Theodore. Theodore has lots of reasons to want to have a good, solid game and I expect him to do so again tonight. 4)Second line and secondary scoring. Montreal has the last line change tonight, so they'll be able to get the match-up they want most of the time against Ovechkin-Backstrom-Knuble. However when they do, that means, especially with their injuries the other three lines should find themselves with more time and space. They need to "capitalize" on those opportunities. 5) Actually two final things a) come out fast, this is a road game and it'll be a capacity crowd cheering for their team and b) stay out of the penalty box, Montreal's power play is pretty good and even injury depleted, they have the guns to move the puck around and take advantage of power play opportunities.
Prediction: Caps 5 - Canadiens 2; Semin 2 goals including the GWG fifth goal an empty netter by Ovie with 1:45 left to play.
LETS GO CAPS!!!