Game 6, Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series (Caps lead series, 3-2)
April 26 vs. Montreal Canadiens at Bell Centre
Time: 7:00 pm TV: CSN HD, TSN, Versus Radio: Caps Radio 106.7 FM, Fox 1370 AM and XM Pregame: Pre-Cap Podcast at 2 p.m. and Two-Man Advantage pre-game show at 3:00 p.m., both on www.washingtoncaps.com
Montreal Canadiens (39-33-10, 88 points)
Washington Capitals (54-15-13, 121 points)
Having forged a 3-1 series lead over the Montreal Canadiens in the Eastern Conference Seminfinal series between the two teams, the Capitals have three chances to close the coffin on the Canadiens. The first chance went by the wayside on Friday night when the Habs staved off elimination with a 2-1 Game 5 victory over the Caps at Verizon Center.
Washington hopes to make good on its second chance – Monday’s Game 6 meeting in Montreal – so that a seventh and deciding game on Wednesday in Washington would be moot.
The Habs came out hard and swift in the first frame on Friday, putting the Caps in a 2-0 hole just over seven minutes into the contest. That is normally not a very steep hill for the offensively gifted Capitals to ascend, but Montreal goaltender Jaroslav Halak stopped 37 of the 38 shots he faced and the Caps continued to struggle on the power play (1-for-24 in the series and 4-for-41 against Montreal in 2009-10). The Caps dropped a 2-1 decision, making a return trip to Montreal necessary.
Washington weathered the storm well for the first 10 minutes and beyond during its two earlier visits to Bell Centre in this series. In the previous five games of the series, Montreal has outscored the Caps by a combined 6-3 in the first period while Washington holds a decided 17-8 advantage over the final 40 minutes and overtime.
The Caps will be seeking a stronger start here in Game 6 as they aim again to end the Canadiens’ season.
“It’s been important in a couple of the games and it didn’t seem to have an effect in a couple of the games,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau. “The first 10 minutes is always important. First periods, you can break it down into quarters and you can break [games] down into 12 five-minute segments. There are so many ways you can break it down. I think it’s important because it’s an important game. We just have to be ready. We’re sure that the crowd will be ready and they will be ready and it will be an electric atmosphere again.”
The Capitals converted 25.2% of their regular season power play chances in 2009-10, but they’re at an anemic 4.2% during the postseason. With a well-timed power play strike or two earlier in the series, the Caps might have already finished off the Habs.
Washington spent some of Sunday’s practice working with its power play corps. Some shifts in personnel could take place with the extra-man unit for Monday’s game; it’s possible that Alex Ovechkin could move down low from his customary power play point position.
Regardless of who plays where, the Caps know they’ve got to start using their power play as the weapon it was for 82 games before the playoffs got underway.
“I think as you can see we’ve been struggling a little bit,” says Caps center Nicklas Backstrom, “but we just have to work harder and get some more shots and do the basic things like get traffic in front of the net. I think that’s the thing. We’ve been successful the whole season. It’s kind of weird that we’re not scoring right now. We have to pick it up.”
Dating back to the last two games of the regular season, Washington’s power play corps is in the midst of an almost unfathomable 1-for-31 (3.2%) run with the man advantage. The Caps simply have too much skill, and that number can’t go much lower.
“It’s like everything else,” says Boudreau. “You just constantly practice and hopefully get better at it. We’ll see how it works.”
On the other end of the special teams spectrum, the Caps killed off all six Montreal power play chances in Friday’s Game 5. That’s the first time in the Capitals’ last 11 postseason games that they’ve authored a perfect penalty killing night.
For the playoffs to date, the Caps have killed off 81.8% of the opposition’s power play chances. That is a shade better than the 78.8% mark the team compiled during the regular season. Heading into Sunday’s Stanley Cup playoff action, Washington ranks eighth among the 16 playoff teams in penalty killing prowess.
The Capitals won each of the two previous games played in Montreal in this series. If Washington is able to end the series with a Monday win in Montreal, it would mark just the second time in franchise history that the Capitals will have won a playoff series with three of the victories coming on the road. The first time they did so was an opening-round series win over the Boston Bruins in 1998.
“You definitely try to keep it a little more simple on the road and not try to do too much and be too fancy,” says Washington defenseman Tom Poti. “We’ve been successful at that and hopefully we can come out and do it again.”
After starting the series with 54 saves in the first 57 shots he faced, Halak surrendered eight goals on the next 40 shots sent in his direction. In doing so, he also surrendered the net to backup netminder Carey Price, who came on in relief of Halak in Game 3 and got the start in Game 4. But Halak was between the pipes for the Habs again at the start of Game 5, and his stalwart performance helped send the series back north to Montreal.
Washington’s top line has had a great offensive presence in this series, combining for a dozen goals in the first five games. The Caps could use more offensive contributions beyond their top three, however.
The Capitals had a league-leading total of seven players with 20 or more goals during the regular season. Backstrom and Ovechkin have combined for 10 goals in this series; that’s half of Washington’s total. Among the other 20-goal getters, only Mike Knuble and Eric Fehr have scored more than once. And Alexander Semin (40 goals in 2009-10) and Tomas Fleischmann (23 goals) have yet to light the lamp.
If the Caps can follow their regular season formula of deep and diverse scoring, a goal or two from the power play, and timely saves at their own end of the rink, they can avert a Game 7 on Wednesday at Verizon Center.
“It’s not going to be easy,” admits Poti. “They’ve been playing pretty good the last couple of games. We’re going to have our hands full.”