Four days after concluding the most successful season in franchise history and one of the most successful seasons in recent NHL history, the Washington Capitals now embark upon the next step, the second season.
The Stanley Cup playoffs.
After laying waste to the Southeast Division race, taking the top spot in the Eastern Conference by a comfortable margin, and earning the first President’s Trophy in franchise history, the pressure is now on the Caps to perform in the postseason.
“As far as pressure goes, you’re the No. 1 seed,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “But to me, it’s like starting the season fresh. We’re all starting at zero wins and zero losses. We were the favorite against Philadelphia two years ago, but I didn’t think we were the favorite. We were the third seed and they were the sixth. When we played the Rangers, it took seven games because teams have a way of lifting their games. Sports has a way of having surprises and upsets. Obviously we don’t want to be one of the surprises or upsets, but it’s been known to happen.”
“If the weapons are shooting bullets and not blanks, it’s wonderful.”
During the second half of the 2009-10 regular season, Washington lost a total of four games in regulation time. Now it will attempt to get through four separate playoff series without losing four games of any kind as it bids for the first Stanley Cup Championship in its 35-season history.
The Caps were ousted in the first round in 2008 and went a round further last spring. Washington hopes to build on those experiences in 2010.
“They’ve got the experience now,” says Boudreau of his team, “but we’ve been preparing hopefully for the whole year. Because the whole year was built towards doing something in the playoffs. Our goal – like I’ve said numerous times – was never to make the playoffs or win the Southeast or the conference or the league. The goal was the one goal. It’s the toughest goal in sports to achieve but we’re going to try to win it.”
The Montreal Canadiens are first up on Washington’s postseason plate. The Habs finished eighth in the NHL’s Eastern Conference last season, and bowed out of the Staley Cup playoffs in the first round at the hands of the top-seeded Boston Bruins. Montreal underwent wholesale changes in the off-season, turning over roughly half of its roster.
After steering the Habs through their winding off-season course, Canadiens general manager Bob Gainey stepped aside in favor of Pierre Gauthier just before the NHL’s two-week Olympic break. Beset by injuries for much of the season, the Habs hovered around the middle portion of the Eastern standings before a small late-season skid once again landed them in the No. 8 spot.
When the Capitals entered the 18-team NHL as a first-year expansion team in 1974-75, they were placed into the Norris Division alongside Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Detroit and Montreal. The Habs had some pretty fair hockey clubs in those days, good enough to win four straight Stanley Cup championships from 1976-79. Montreal rolled up four of the eight 120-point seasons in NHL history during the 1970s, and three of them came during the Canadiens’ dynastic rule over the latter half of the decade.
With the addition of the exiled franchises – Edmonton, Hartford, Quebec and Winnipeg – from the newly defunct World Hockey Association, the NHL became the Original 21 in 1979-80. The accompanying gerrymander moved the Capitals into the Patrick Division along with Philadelphia, the New York Islanders, the New York Rangers and the Atlanta Flames. The Islanders picked up where the Habs left off, following four straight Montreal Stanley Cup championships with four of their own.
For eight straight seasons from 1975-83, the Caps did business in the same division as the Stanley Cup champ of that campaign. Washington made only one playoff appearance of its own during that stretch.
In the early days of Washington’s existence, the Caps were a doormat for many of the dominant teams in the league. Montreal was the most dominant of those clubs, and they owned the early era Capitals.
During the five seasons in which the Caps and Habs were both Norris Division dwellers, Montreal routinely wiped its feet on the Capitals. Washington was 0-30-2 against Montreal in the first five seasons of its existence. The Habs outscored the Caps by a ghastly total of 191-53 in those 32 “contests.”
This marks the first ever meeting between the two teams in the playoffs. With this series, Washington will now have met 10 of the 14 other Eastern Conference teams in the postseason. The Caps have yet to face Toronto, Carolina, Atlanta and Florida in Stanley Cup competition.
The series pits the league’s best regular season team against its 19th best team. There was a 31-point differential between Washington and Montreal in the standings this season, but you wouldn’t know it to watch any of the four games between the two teams in 2009-10. None of the four games between Washington and Montreal was decided by more than two goals.
Montreal took the first meeting between the two teams on Nov. 20, winning 3-2 and handing the Caps the first of their five regulation losses on home ice this season. Mike Cammalleri’s third-period power play goal against Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth – making his first NHL start of the season – was the game-winner. The Caps outshot the Habs 34-22, and limited Montreal to just two power play chances, but Cammalleri cashed in on one of them.
Eight days later, the two teams hooked up in Montreal. The Caps jumped out to an early 2-0 lead on goals from Eric Fehr and Alex Ovechkin just 72 seconds apart in the middle of the opening frame. The Canadiens scored the game’s next three goals – including two on the power play – to take a 3-2 lead into the late stages of the game. Fehr scored a 6-on-4 power play goal with 12 seconds remaining to send the game to overtime, and Nicklas Backstrom won it for the Caps in the shootout, 4-3. Semyon Varlamov stopped 21 of 24 shots he faced to gain the victory.
Montreal visited Verizon Center again on Jan. 5 in the first game of the season’s second half. Ovechkin took the ice with the captain’s “C” on his sweater for the first time, and the Caps earned a 4-2 win. Alexander Semin scored twice to support Neuvirth’s 24-save performance in goal.
Neuvirth started again when the two teams closed out their season’s series in Montreal on Feb. 10, but the rookie goalie left with an injury in the second, yielding to Jose Theodore with the score even at 2-2. The Habs quickly nicked Theodore for three to take a 5-2 advantage into the third.
Washington got three in the final frame, including two from Brooks Laich who completed his first NHL hat trick in the process. Laich third goal came in the final minute of regulation, sending the game into overtime and giving the Caps a chance to extend their 14-game winning streak. But Montreal’s Tomas Plekanec beat Theodore with just eight seconds left in the extra session to give the Habs a 6-5 overtime win.
“Initially,” says Boudreau, “you look at a team that has played us very tight and been very competitive against us all year. Never playing Montreal in the playoffs, you know that they’re an emotional team and they’re going to lift their game up.”
Former Canadien Jose Theodore is set to start in goal for Washington and Jaroslav Halak gets the nod between the pipes for the Habs. Interestingly, neither netminder started any of the four games between the two teams this season.
Theodore comes in as the hottest netminder in the NHL. He has not tasted defeat in a regulation game in more than three months, since a 7-4 loss to the Lightning in Tampa Bay on Jan. 12. During that stretch, he has posted a 20-0-3 mark to go along with a 2.58 GAA and a .922 save pct.
Theodore has done his best work on the road this season, where he is 16-5-3 with a 2.53 GAA and a .920 save pct. At Verizon Center in 2009-10, Theodore was 14-2-4 with a 3.10 GAA and a .901 save pct.
With 49 career postseason games on his résumé, Theodore enters the 2010 with more Stanley Cup playoff experience than any other Eastern Conference playoff goaltender with the exception of New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur. Theodore has led his team to first-round victories in every even-numbered year beginning with 2002. He forged a 16-8 record with a 2.26 GAA and a .928 save pct. in those four series.
The Caps have Semyon Varlamov waiting in the wings as well. Varlamov replaced Theodore after the latter suffered a loss in Game 1 of the Caps’ opening-round series with the Rangers last spring, and the Russian youngster backstopped the Caps to within a win of the conference finals. Varlamov lost two months out of the middle of the 2009-10 season because of injuries, but has recently shown flashes of the stellar style he displayed last spring.
Halak finally wrested the lion’s share of the Habs’ netminding duties from incumbent No. 1 goalie Carey Price. Like Theodore, Halak was very strong down the stretch. He fashioned a 9-3-3 mark with two shutouts, a 2.07 GAA and a .926 save pct. after the Olympic break.
Price has been the Habs’ main man in the playoffs the last two years. Halak has just three games worth of Stanley Cup experience and is still seeking his first win.
“It’s different, but we’re still going to shoot the puck,” says Boudreau of facing Halak instead of the more familiar Price. They both have great attributes, both Halak and Price. We’ll study a lot of tape this week of Halak to see if we can find any weakness. I’m sure they’re going to do the same thing on Varly and Theo to see if there is anything they can pick up there.”
Price is 5-10 with a 3.11 GAA and an .895 save pct. lifetime in Stanley Cup playoff competition.
On the Backline
Washington’s top defensive duo of Mike Green and Jeff Schultz was one of the league’s best this season. The two both ranked in the NHL’s top five in plus/minus, with Schultz’s plus-50 setting a single-season franchise record and leading the league to boot. Green led the NHL in goals, assists and points by a defenseman and both players set single-season career highs in points.
Veteran Tom Poti and precocious rookie John Carlson comprise the team’s second pair. Both are capable of skating upwards of 20 minutes a night, but the Caps have eased Carlson into the NHL, deploying him almost exclusively at even strength. Poti is Washington’s most experienced rearguard in terms of NHL experience, but last season marked the first time in his NHL career that he was with a team that advanced past the first round of the playoffs. The 20-year-old Carlson turned pro at this time last season, helping the AHL Hershey Bears to the 10th Calder Cup title in franchise history. Earlier this year, he scored the overtime game-winner in the decisive gold medal game that gave Team USA an upset win over Team Canada in the IIHF World Junior Championship, ending Canada’s five-year hold on the gold.
Shaone Morrisonn and Joe Corvo round out Washington’s top six. Both players are set to become unrestricted free agents this summer and both could benefit monetarily from strong postseason performances. Morrisonn has played some of the best hockey of his career in the season’s second half. Corvo has struggled since joining the Caps in a March 3 trade with Carolina, but he has shown some recent signs of finding his footing.
Montreal features four defensemen who totaled 20 or more points this season. All four see power play duty and help fuel the Habs’ second-ranked extra-man unit.
Well-rounded Andrei Markov and well-traveled Marc-Andre Bergeron comprise the Canadiens’ top rearguard duo. Markov missed nearly half the season because of injury but still paced the team’s blueliners with 34 points in just 45 games. Bergeron also had 34 points in 2009-10, and he led Montreal defensemen with 13 goals.
Veteran Czech mates Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek comprise the Habs’ second pairing. Hamrlik’s 1,232 games worth of regular season NHL experience is tops among all Eastern Conference defensemen in this spring’s Stanley Cup playoffs. Spacek was one of the new faces in Montreal this season, coming over from Buffalo as a free agent. Both players routinely average well over 20 minutes a night.
Montreal’s third pair is actually the capable shutdown duo of Josh Gorges and Hal Gill. Gorges is the better puck mover of the two, and Gill is a big, physical blueliner with a big wingspan. He hoisted the Cup with Pittsburgh last spring.
No. 7 blueliner Ryan O’Byrne is the lone righty among the Montreal blueline brigade.
Washington led the league in scoring, tallying the most goals in the NHL in more than a decade. A deep and diverse group of forwards helped the Capitals roll up offensive numbers that were the envy of the league.
Washington’s top line of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble combined for 112 goals. Despite missing 10 games, Ovechkin nearly led the league in both goals and points. He set a career high with 59 assists and his average of 1.51 points per game was the best of his five seasons in the NHL. Backstrom’s 68 assists were the third-most ever recorded by a Capital, and he became just the fourth player in franchise history to register 100 or more points in a season.
Beyond the top unit, Boudreau has many options because of the depth and versatility of his forward corps.
Tomas Fleischmann was moved from left wing to center at mid-season. Although he did play some left wing again after the trade deadline acquisition of Eric Belanger, Fleischmann appears to be the team’s second-line pivot as the postseason gets underway. Fleischmann and linemates Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin all recorded career highs in goals and points this season, and all three exceeded the 50-point level. The trio combined for 88 goals.
Laich can play any forward position and he is a staple on both special teams as well, as is Semin. Semin is one of the league’s best pure talents; a wizard of a stickhandler with a wicked arsenal of shots.
Belanger centers Jason Chimera – obtained from Columbus at midseason – and Eric Fehr, who had a breakout year. The defensively responsible Belanger had a career high 41 points on the season. Chimera offers a tantalizing combination of size and speed that makes for effective forechecking. Fehr netted 21 goals despite missing 13 games and averaging just 12:08 per game, easily the lowest ice time total of any of the league’s 110 20-goal scorers.
Washington’s fourth line features checking centers David Steckel and Boyd Gordon, a pair of strong face-off men. Matt Bradley skates the right side of the line. Bradley had his best offensive campaign, setting career highs with 10 goals and 24 points.
Veterans Brendan Morrison, Scott Walker and Quintin Laing offer tremendous depth up front. Although he slowed after a swift start, Morrison finished with 42 points. Walker provides a great deal of speed and grit, and Laing is an effective penalty killer and shot-blocker extraordinaire.
Montreal’s top two scorers are its top two centers, Tomas Plekanec (70 points) and Scott Gomez (59 points). The Habs also feature a pair of 20-goal wingers in Brian Gionta (28 goals) and Mike Cammalleri (26 goals).
Plekanec centers for Cammalleri and Andrei Kostitsyn (15 goals in 58 games) while Gomez pivots for Gionta and Benoit Pouliot (17 goals in 53 games). None of Montreal’s top four wingers played in as many as 70 games this season; better health would have resulted in more goals.
While Washington’s third line boasts a 21-goal getter in Fehr, the Habs third trio of Travis Moen, Dominic Moore and Sergei Kostitsyn combined for just 25 goals on the season. Moen was an integral part of the 2007 Anaheim Ducks’ Stanley Cup championship team. He scored seven goals for the Ducks during their run to the chalice.
Maxim Lapierre centers a fourth line with Tom Pyatt (son of ex-Cap Nelson Pyatt) and Mathieu Darche (former Hershey Bear). Center Ben Maxwell is the team’s 13th forward.
Washington finished first in the league for the first time in its history with a 25.2% power play success rate. The Caps were 25th in the NHL in penalty killing prowess with a 78.8% kill rate. The capitals were the league’s sixth best face-off team with a 51.5% circle success rate.
Montreal featured the league’s second best power play at 21.8%. The Habs were 12th in the league with a penalty killing rate of 83%. The Canadiens won 49.7% of their face-offs on the season to rank 16th in the circuit.
The Habs were 5-for-14 (35.7%) against the Caps on the power play during the regular season.
“I think we will talk about it,” says Boudreau of the Montreal extra-man unit. “We’re going to talk about their power play. I don’t think that’s a secret. It’s great and they’ve killed us on it so far. They move the puck, they shoot, they go to the net, they’re quick, they’re on pucks, they’re on loose pucks. Their forwards aren’t big but they’ve got two good units. And they’ve got two good point men that can really shoot the puck.”
Washington will be without defenseman Milan Jurcina (sports hernia surgery) for the entire series. Caps blueliners John Erskine and Tyler Sloan each departed their last regular season appearance with an injury, but both are said to be healthy heading into the postseason.
Montreal will be without the services of defenseman Paul Mara, who underwent left shoulder surgery in late March. The Habs will also be without ex-Caps center Glen Metropolit, who is expected to miss several weeks because of a separated shoulder and torn muscle.
By The Numbers
Washington finished the season with the fewest regulation losses (15) in the league. The Caps also had the fewest regulation losses in the league both at home (five) and on the road (10) … Washington was 5-7-2 in games in which one of its “Young Guns” did not score a goal. The Caps were 1-9-1 in games in which the “Young Guns” did not score in 2008-09 … The Caps allowed an average of 2.77 goals per game to rank 16th in the league in that department. Only three of the teams beneath them on that ledger (Colorado, Ottawa, Pittsburgh) made the playoffs … Montreal finished 26th in the league with an average of 2.56 goals scored per game. Of the four teams that finished beneath the Habs in that category, only one (Boston) made the playoffs … Washington led the league with 213 5-on-5 goals. Montreal ranked 30th in the same category with 132. The Capitals were plus-77 at 5-on-5 in 2009-10 while the Habs were minus-14, making for a swing of 91 goals between the two teams … Gomez had two goals and five points in seven postseason games against Washington last spring while playing for the New York Rangers.