April 12 vs. Boston Bruins at TD Garden
Time: 7:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at 3:00 p.m., John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at 3:00 p.m. on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (42-32-8), 92 points
Boston Bruins (49-29-4), 102 points
For each of the last four springs, the Washington Capitals entered the NHL’s Stanley Cup playoffs as one of the top-seeded teams in the Eastern Conference, a team with home ice advantage in the first round and frequently, beyond. This spring, the Caps will get to experience how the other half lives. They’ll open their pursuit of the 2012 Stanley Cup title on the road this time, in Boston on Thursday night.
After starting the 2011-12 regular season on a 7-0 spree, the Caps alternately staggered and spurted their way through most of the campaign. They finished on a 13-6-3 run in their last 22 games, meaning they endured a mediocre stretch of 22-26-5 hockey in the midst of the season.
Instead of coasting into the playoffs – the Caps were the top seed in the East in each of the last two seasons and they were second-seeded in 2009 – Washington had to claw and scrap its way into the field of 16, and it did not nail down its berth until the penultimate contest of the regular season.
The seventh-seeded Capitals don’t have the luxury of home ice to start the postseason, and not only that, they’ll be facing a very formidable first-round foe in the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins.
“We’re fired up,” says Caps right wing Joel Ward. “We’re excited. The buzz is going pretty good and everyone is all excited to be in this situation. It should be a fun series.”
It should be a fun series, but it will obviously be much more fun for the team that wins it and moves on to the next round. With that in mind, here are the keys for the Caps to have success in round one against the Bruins.
Washington signed veteran free agent goaltender Tomas Vokoun to a one-year deal last summer, and he was solid for a stretch of about two months in mid-season before a nagging groin ailment set in. The 35-year-old goaltender started just eight of Washington’s last 28 games in the regular season.
Vokoun won’t be available for the first round, and backup Michal Nevirth – who won 27 games and a playoff series for the Caps in 2010-11 – suffered a lower body injury of his own and may not be ready for first-round duty, either.
That leaves 22-year-old Braden Holtby – a veteran of 21 regular season NHL games – as the Capitals’ No. 1 netminder against the defending Stanley Cup champs.
Holtby being the man in the crease against Boston’s Tim Thomas – winner of the 2011 Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophies – may actually be a benefit for the Caps. Holtby’s arsenal of attributes includes an ability to play the puck, and that could come in handy given the Caps’ healthy defensive corps (something Washington lacked last spring) and Boston’s desire and ability to establish a strong forecheck.
“They may back off so he is not able to send a puck past their forecheck and give us a better chance to get out of our zone,” says Caps goaltending coach Dave Prior of the Holtby vs. the Bruins match-up. “I think it just allows you to adjust to what they’re doing more. If we need him to move the puck more, he’s capable. If they’re going to hold back because of his puckhandling abilities, it allows our defense more time to come and get it from him.
“In my time in working with him, he came out of junior somewhat undisciplined in his puckhandling. Lots of times in junior, they just want to goalie to move the puck hard and without much purpose. Our focus since he has been a pro is, ‘If you’re going to be helpful, it’s never a help to turn the puck over while you’re standing behind the net.’ He has made that mistake a few times in his pro career. He hasn’t made it of late and I don’t want to see it in the near future.
“He’s been very good at disciplining himself. I think when he has been up this year, he has wanted to make a big impression. Sometimes he has looked for the opportunities to make a play when I want him to just take advantage of them if they present it themselves. But don’t try to make something happen if it isn’t there. That’s when you end up usually paying a price for that. I’m pleased with his progress as a pro and he is as good a puckhandler as I’ve ever worked with.”
Holtby has fashioned an impressive 14-4-3 record to go along with three shutouts, a 2.02 GAA and a .929 save pct. in his brief NHL career. He is not at all fazed by the spotlight of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“He’s a young eager kid who’s ready to prove himself,” says Caps center Brooks Laich of Holtby. “He’s a very talented goaltender. The thing I like the most about him is how hard he competes in the net. And anybody that competes that hard, we will compete as hard as we can in front of him; try to block shots and clear guys out so he just has to make the first save. We’re excited to have him. I think he’s a tremendous goaltender.”
At the other end of the ice, the Caps will have to contend with Thomas, the late-blooming veteran who turns 37 on Sunday.
“He’s a veteran goalie that won the Stanley Cup last year,” says Caps coach Dale Hunter of Thomas. “We have to get traffic in front and get rebounds. Every team says that about the other goalie because the goalies are good anymore. If they see it, they’re going to get it. So you’ve got to make sure that you have screens.”
The best defense is a good offense, and both Boston and Washington have big bodies up front that like to get into the zone and establish a forecheck and a cycling game. Whichever team is more effective at playing in the other team’s end of the ice is going to have a leg up.
“I think it’s just as simple as getting pucks out of your own zone as quick as you can,” says Ward. “And obviously you’ve got to try to get on the forecheck and pin them in. I really think good dumps are going to be key, proper placement and getting guys in on the forecheck as quick as you can. I think if we can wear them down and limit the crowd as much as we can, it gives us a chance to win.”
Holtby and Washington’s blueline brigade will also need to be quick and efficient at getting and moving the puck out of the Caps’ end of the ice to prevent Boston from setting up camp.
The Bruins’ reputation as a physical team dates back decades and is richly deserved. The B’s feature big bodies such as Zdeno Chara, Milan Lucic and Shawn Thornton as well as the smallish Brad Marchand, who plays a big man’s game. The Caps will need to minimize the wear and tear of playing against a physical team such as Boston while also dishing some physicality of their own back at the Bruins.
“I think that’s been a part of our game lately that has benefited us for the most part,” says Caps forward Matt Hendricks. “I think no matter what building we’re playing in, we seem to come out and play physical. They’ve got some big bodies over there, some guys that really know how to use their size to their advantage. I don’t know if we’re going to be able to match up one-on-one with everybody, but I think collectively as a team if we focus on being physical and finishing our checks that we’ll be able to battle with these guys.”
Washington has some sizable forwards of its own, and it should be able to exact some toll on the Bruins defense over the course of the series.
“Both sides have a lot of big forwards,” notes Caps right wing Troy Brouwer. “Wearing down defensemen is always a key priority in playoff series, especially early.
“For us, we can’t have any turnovers at the blueline. They’ve got six 20-goal scorers and they love the transition game. We’ve got to get it low and grind on Chara and [Dennis] Seidenberg and their skilled defensemen. We’ve got to make it so that it’s not going to be fun for them to go back in and get pucks.”
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin finished with 38 goals, fifth most in the NHL. Ovechkin fired home 11 of those goals in his last 13 games, but Chara is certain to give him all that he can handle. That means Washington’s secondary scorers are going to have to step up and contribute as much as possible.
“You have to work as a line,” notes Hunter. “It’s not Ovi against Chara. It’s the line against the Boston Bruins. You’ve got to cycle the puck and work the puck. It’s not just individual against individual.”
The Caps will be contending with a deep and diverse Boston attack that features six 20-goal scorers as well as four more skaters that achieved double-digit goal totals. Boston will be without forward Nathan Horton (17 goals) for the duration of the postseason, but the Bruins added veteran forward Brian Rolston at the trade deadline. Rolston caught fire down the stretch after being liberated from Long Island.
Washington’s power play was missing in action for long stretches during the second half of the season. The Caps were 26-for-137 (19%) with the extra man in the season’s first half, a rate that would place them seventh in the league if maintained over the full season. In the second half of the campaign, the Capitals were just 15-for-108 (13.9), a rate that would place them 28th in the circuit if maintained over the full 82-game slate.
The Caps’ 1-for-36 (2.8%) performance with the extra man in their last 13 home games was particularly wretched. Boston is one of the league’s best five-on-five teams, so the Caps will almost certainly need to get some clutch goals from their sagging power play group.
The Caps have enough skilled personnel to effectively man two power play units, but is that personnel always deployed to the best end? Ovechkin’s big frame is perfect for parking in the crease, creating screens and cashing in on rebound chances, but the captain prefers to play on the point.
Backstrom’s return to the lineup after missing half the season with a concussion was a welcome addition, and his quarterbacking presence along the half wall could start to pay dividends soon.
Regardless of who plays where, the Caps have to find a way to make their power play into a weapon. They’ve struggled in that area in previous springs, and the team’s lack of extra-man acumen has been a direct culprit in more than one early playoff exit in Washington.
“We’ve obviously cooled down quite a bit here lately,” admits defenseman Dennis Wideman. “We’ve got to make better decisions. We’re turning pucks over; we’re forcing plays when they’re not there. We’ve got to simplify it a little bit and make the play that’s open, and when we have a lane to shoot it, shoot it. And then build off that.
“When we start with that, it will open up other things. But right now, we’re trying to force passes through the box and they’re getting picked off or we’re trying to shoot when we shouldn’t be shooting. We’re just making bad decisions right now. We’ve just got to work it around, move it quick and then get pucks to the net.”
Everything is magnified in the playoffs. A shift, a face-off, a hit, a period can turn a game or even a series around. Momentum swings can feel like a 40-foot wave if they’re going against you, but it’s important to remain grounded and dig right back in after adverse events.
Gaining and regaining momentum are so important at playoff time.
“It’s a long process and it’s a very emotional process,” says Brouwer. “You can’t get caught up too early. A big part of the playoffs is getting momentum and carrying the momentum. If you can score early in that first game, get some momentum early in that first game, it goes a long way toward winning games and hopefully winning series.”
The Caps defeated the Bruins in three of the four regular season meetings between the two clubs, all of which took place in the season’s second half. None of that matters now, though.
“You just put the last 82 games out the window, because they don’t matter anymore,” says Hendricks. “Now it’s a day-in and day-out grind battling with your opponent. You get grudges and you start hating them. It’s the best game in the world and the best time of year for it. We really look forward to this against a very good opponent that we respect tremendously.”