So it's set, first faceoff Thursday evening, 7PM at Verizon Center. Caps versus Habs, first round of the 2010 playoffs. The story lines abound and this should be a good series. Each team's 2009 - 2010 regular season record against the other being an identical 2-1-1. So let's see if we can identify the top story lines that will be discussed and debated over the next week or so in conjunction with this series.
1) The league's #2 power play (Montreal) vs. the league's #25 penalty kill (Capitals).
I've gotta believe the Capitals will be watching film and working on ensuring their penalty kill unit tightens things up - a lot - starting this morning at KCI. I also believe that will happen - in other words we'll see them do so successfully. This is the playoffs after all and this is what the Caps goal has been all season. Also if that wasn't motivation enough, throughout the 4 game series between these two teams this past season, all four games have been close ones. On the plus side of this discussion for Capitals fans is this year's Capitals team set a franchise record for fewest penalty minutes (940).
2) The league's biggest team (Washington) vs. one of the smallest lineups in the league (Montreal). The Washington Capitals are a deceptive team when it comes to size, since they are such a great skating team with so many fast players, many people often overlook their size. The Capitals smallest player is Scott Walker at 5'10", 196# he is one of only 4 players on the team under 6'. Many folks don't talk about the size of the "young guns" for example and because all the Caps are big guys none really stands out from a size perspective on the ice when they are all there together, but consider that Mike Green is 6'1", 204#; Alexander Semin 6'2", 208#; Nicklas Backstrom 6'1", 210#, and Alexander Ovechkin 6'2", 233#. Elsewhere on the roster guys like Matt Bradley are deceptively tall at 6'3", 201#. The biggest guy on the Caps roster is Jeff Schultz who does indeed look his full 6'6" and more and more this season is has also been making his 220# of muscle felt when he's been on the ice accumulating the best +/- rating in the NHL this regular season, a +50.
On the other side of Center Ice, the Caps will face off against a Canadiens team that is one of "extremes" when it comes to size. The biggest player on the Canadiens roster is defenseman Hal Gill at 6'7", 235#. Gill, a 35 year old American from Concord, MA joined the Montreal roster as a free agent this past summer after two years including a Stanley Cup with the Penguins. He is a big, bruising, stay at home blue liner in his 12th NHL season. At the other end of the spectrum, the Canadiens have seven (7) skaters and goaltender Jaroslav Halak at under 6'0". The smallest guy on the Canadiens roster is Right Wing Brian Gionta, at 5'7", 175#. Gionta, formerly of the New Jersey Devils rejoined former Devils' teammate 5'11", 202# Center Scott Gomez when Gionta joined the Habs as a UFA this summer after Gomez was traded to Montreal by the Rangers for Christopher Higgins on June 30th this summer. Both Gionta and Gomez are hot coming into the playoffs, know the Capitals well from having spent their careers with Eastern Conference rivals, and are having respectable years. However while the entire Canadiens team has had respectable seasons, they've only been average or below as a team coming down the home stretch going 3-4-3 in the last 10 games of the season and they likely won't be trying to out-muscle the Capitals in the corners during this series. Whether that all makes a difference remains to be seen though it will likely be discussed several times during the next two weeks.
3) The goaltending situation and match up for both teams. I suspect we'll have Montreal's past in net for the Capitals, Jose Theodore, vs. either the future Montreal thought they were going to have (Carey Price) or the future they are very likely to have (Jaroslav Halak). Of course, then again it could be Washington's future or at least one of the three possibilities for Washington's future (Semyon Varlamov) against either Halak or Price. All that said I'm betting on a great post season from Jose Theodore and the first opposing net-minder he contrasts with being Jaroslav Halak. In the end I think for the Caps to win this series and go deep in the playoffs they need their goaltender to have a SV% greater than 0.915% and a GAA less than 2.25 through out the post season. The way Theodore has been playing since January, he's clearly capable of delivering that sort of post season and I just think he's on a mission to prove he's as good as he thinks he is instead of the goaltender alot of folks disparage. The fact that he'll open the playoffs against the team that drafted him in 1994 only adds to his focus and motivation. For Montreal to win this first series they'll need their goal tending and team defense to be even better than that. Right now of the two Montreal goaltenders, it still seems to me, the one more likely to have a chance at delivering those sorts of numbers is Halak. However the 24 year old Czech rookie hasn't played to his potential over the past two games going 0-1-1 with a 0.867 SV% and 3.95GAA and while Price has been 0-1-1 in his last two games, he's delivered a SV% of .942 and GAA of 1.94, so who knows which of his two goalies Jacques Martin will start in net on Thursday evening. For Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, when he looks at the career numbers on the match up side, even though, it appears that Jose Theodore has won the #1 job clearly since January 1st, in the back of Boudreau's mind will be the fact that Theodore's numbers against his former team are 2-1-0, .877 SV% and 4.05GAA while Varlamov's are 2-0-0, .930SV% and 1.94GAA. In the end I'm thinking that Boudreau will consult with Caps goaltending coach at least a couple of times during the series but go with Theodore and be pleased with the results.
4) Will the Capitals high powered forwards "feast" on the Canadiens as they have from time to time in recent years. For example, in 20 career games Alex Ovechkin has 11 goals and 13 assists against the Canadiens. If they manage to find a strategy and execute tactics which effectively limit Ovechkin's production, then there are a multitude of other weapons the Capitals might use to put the puck in the Montreal net, such as Alexander Semin, who's been reasonably effective against the Canadiens in the past as well and had 6 goals and 8 assists during the last 11 games of this season. In the end though, I expect that Jacques Martin will be looking to use a team defense that stacks the neutral zone and tries very hard to bottle the Caps up in their own end of the ice. The issue that will likely prevent that will be the size differential between the two teams (see item 2 above). Montreal can skate with the Capitals but unless their goaltending clearly out duels the Capitals defense and goal tending they haven't shown nearly the same ability to put the "biscuit in the basket" as the Caps have this season. In fact the Capitals finished the regular season with 101 more goals for than the Canadiens and the Canadiens finished the regular season with only 10 less goals against than the Capitals. So it's highly unlikely that of these two teams the one looking to open things up will be Montreal.
#5) You tell me, there's lots of them out there ...
Summary: It's been pointed out often as various pundits assess the Capitals chances of winning Lord Stanley's Cup that playing the same team in a best of seven series is a lot different than meeting them 4 or 6 times over the course of a season. I couldn't agree more, and in this case, when you look at the key story lines and match-ups, even if you're not a Caps fan you'll probably going to have to admit these things look good for the Caps in this series. Of course that is as they say, why they play the games on the ice. So here's rooting out Capitals start out this series focused,finish it the same way, and find themselves moving on to Round 2 in two weeks time.
I don't do predictions about playoff series any more, first off I'm trying to practice what I preach and take things ... ONE GAME AT A TIME. Secondly, I'm just that sort of superstitious guy.
LETS GO CAPS!!!