Tonight’s the night. The matchups i most care about with the Washington Capitals and Montreal Canadians get underway facing the New York Rangers and Ottawa Senators. These two series promise to be among the closest matched, hardest fought and intriguing when viewed on paper. There’s a lot of similarities between the Caps and Habs (as well as the Sens and Rags) and some great sub-plits to make these infinitely interesting.
I had all but written the Caps off mid season as wasting away in Washington and then something amazing happened. Debates abound if it was the narrow loss to the Pens, or the back-to-back wins against the Jets, or the return of half the roster from the disabled list but the Caps completely turned around the season going on a tear that brought them to their seventh and final Southeast division championship. The improbably success didn’t mean it was an impossibility. That team had all the makings of a winner and just needed time to transition from who they were to who they’ve become.
For Les Habitants that transition happened much quicker in the lockout shortened season and they pulled together under their completely revamped leadership a successful season that challenged the Pens for a short time as the best in the East and if not for a late season test of the mettle they played pretty flawless hockey for a team rebuilding.
So now both are poised for their first round matchups to which I’ve already supplied my complete first round predictions.
Instead of doing a complete second half breakdown for the Caps I’ll just answer the open questions left from the mid-season recap and jump
1) the injury bug hit Martin Erat immediately coming over from Nashville and fellow former Pred Ward also went down, but both appear to be back and ready to make an impact. Other than Poti and Laich with longer term injuries the team was relatively injury free compared to earlier in the season
2) the balance between youth and veterans was mostly restored. The health of the team had a lot to do with it, allowing players like Orlov, Kundratek, Grubauer, Shilling and others to continue to mature in Hershey while the kids Johannson, Perrault, Volpatti, as well as Alzner, Carlson and Holtby plus rookie Olesky a chance to grow under considerably less pressure.
3) Between health and the deadline move for Erat the balance between Caps system products and veteran experience also balanced out a bit too. Makes skating Alzner, Backstrom, Beagle, Carlson, Fehr, Green, Holtby, Johannson, Neuvirth, Olesky, Ovechkin, Perrault as the 12 Caps “kids” of the 25 man roster (two more if Laich wasn’t injured and Schultz a nightly scratch) a little easier to stomach.
4) see point one below in what’s important for the Caps in round one… the Caps aren’t a penalty taking machine anymore and that’s a difference maker.
5) Welcome back Alex Ovechkin, Richard Rocket trophy champ. The transition from left-to-right wing and from puck carrier to puck shooter from Boudreau’s no system to Hunter’s no-Offense system to Oates is happening and as the saying goes, As Ovi goes the Caps Go. He’s MVP aspiring performance in the second-half was historic as he raced up the scoring sheet and carried the Caps on his back to the playoffs.
Three Important Points for the Caps:
Draw Penalties don’t take them:
The Caps have put together one of the most dynamic and dangerous Power Play units in recent memory. A healthy Mike Green to work the point, Riberio and Backstrom creatively cycling, Alex Ovechkin’s deadly shot and the ability to rotate a cast of characters in to keep legs fresh in the likes of Martin Erat, Marcus Johannson, John Carlson, Troy Brower, Joel Ward and so in a 1-3-1 system under the tactical eye of Adam Oates and it is no wonder they put up a league blistering 26% conversion rate. The Rangers Penalty Kill is middle of the pack statistically but they are a stout defensive team that plays very aggressive. It could leave them open for problems if they get caught out of position trying too hard to pressure but it is effective against equally as aggressive PP. Since the Rangers give up among the fewest penalties in the first place it is imperative the Caps get on the board with PPG early to undermine the Rags PK confidence and continue to take full advantage of the rare chances, particularly since the Rags love to lay out in front of anything and everything even remotely headed toward the net.
Although the Capitals penalty kill has been better and the Rangers Power Play is middle of the road, all it takes is one odd bounce and a game can swing rather quickly on the Caps. They’ve gave up a lot of opportunities early in the season but brought themselves back to the middle of the pack. They gave up a lot of shots during those opportunities early in the season and also brought themselves back to the middle of the pack. However, with some of the upfront star-power the Rangers possess and a shallower defensive minded corps the Caps can’t afford to give up too many opportunities and need to be effective at killing them off by making the Rangers run up and down the ice rather than set up in the zone.
Evoke the Secondary Scoring clause
Knowing Tort’s view of matchups and the way he’s used his defensive corps (thanks Japers Rink for the deep dive stats) the first line of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Johannson will probably see Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh slated to every single shift along with the Rangers forth or third line to help shut things down. This will give Ovi little room to maneuver and probably take a lot of the creativity away from Backstrom to generate scoring. Mojo will have to step up with all the focus across ice, especially since the top line skates a lot with Green-Alzner as a defensive pairing and Green should attract a lot of attention for his puck ability (and the Rangers fondness for headshots to him). If they leave Mojo open he has to put the pressure on Lundqvist and force Torts to rethink his shutdown strategy against Ovi-Backstrom-Green appearances. His second half numbers make a case he can do it, but under the pressure of the playoffs can the young gunner keep his hand hot?
This also means the second and third lines should receive more favorable pairings on the Rangers defense and exposure to less defensively minded forwards to take advantage of. The Rangers are a much more adept puck possession team than the Capitals overall, even with some of the improvements throughout the season. The second line on the Caps in particular despite Riberio’s play-making creativity seems to suffer in this however, there’s a lot of secondary ability available with Erat-Riberio-Brower in front of Carlson-Ernskine pairing (or the Green-Alzner one). If Ward prove to be healthy this also strengthens the Perrault centered third line with Fehr if he’s used there and opens some flexibility in how the second and third lines can be configured for matching up against the Rags middle lines. The fourth line can focus primarily on shutting down the top line of captain Ryan Callahan, leading scorer Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin as well as matching up on the pairing of Nash-Richards who probably skate with young phenom Zuccarello. The third pairing will probably be tasked with them as well taking both Jack Hillen & Steve Olesky’s puck-luck to task. It is imperative that the second and third lines produce solid time in the offensive zone as well as defenders chipping in on offense in those cases to put pressure on the Rangers D and not vice versa.
Don’t spend the entire game on Defense.
The Rangers have proven with their puck control and discipline in not taking penalties to be able to wear teams out over the course of 60 minutes which will be a big challenge to overcome. The Caps defense is probably the best it has been in years from the standpoint of standing up on the blue line and the forwards are taking more responsibility on falling back on the play to pitch in, however, this is still not a shut down team by any stretch of the imagination. After Alzner who is a quantifiable stud most nights playing back, there’s not a lot to speak of in Carlson and Green who are puck-moving playmakers (and Green a mighty fine shot himself too) moreso than stay at home, while Olesky and Hillen fall in an in-between category leaving Big John who is having, for all intents and purposes, a banner year on the blue line as the only other big, stay-at-home body. This group of six can be ground down if they are forced to play on their heals, which will also drag the third forward line into a defensive mindset detracting from its scoring potential. If they opted to switch things up, down in Hershey they really don’t have a lot of defensive minded options to work with (Kunderak and Orlov both are movers) and Schultz is much better suited for nacho duty in the press box these days.
Due to the defensive deficiencies it can also put a lot of pressure on Holtby. He will be the first Caps goalie since Olaf Kolzig to start back-to-back years in net but at the tender age of 23 and having been tested for near a league leading average of 31 shots per game he’ll have to be every bit as good as his stats suggest he can be in order to survive the Rangers firepower. Goalies can change the course of a team’s playoff hopes and Holts is largely unknown despite catching magic in a bottle to earn the #1 spot on a team that goes through goalies the way the Caps have the last decade.
Being the Caps are middle of the road in defensive and the Rangers have not exactly lit the lamp exceedingly well on offense they maybe match up statistically on paper but there are too many x-factors to go by shear numbers. The Caps will need to hit hard and often to push the puck through the neutral zone using their talents on the blue line to jumpstart the run and keep the forecheck on the Rangers if they will have any success. The minute it becomes a 40+ minute, puck blocking, grinder in the Caps zone it’ll be the deathknell for the season and that’s exactly the kind of mentality one expects the Rags to come in with.
Three biggest concerns facing the Rags:
He can steal a game here and there. Despite his impressive numbers though he hasn’t stolen a whole series or taken a team on his back through the Cup round. But he can steal a game and that’s what is important to the Caps now… not letting him have even one game he’s the primary reason the Rangers won. Providing him with that opportunity will only energize the Rangers further and the Caps cannot afford the Blueshirts such a gift.
The Caps have solved King Henrik before and they will have to again or, if nothing else, make him work hard to wear him and the Rangers D down since he’s not likely to implode for any reason other than running out of steam or lots of knuckled pucks sputtering by. Since the Caps top line will see the strongest defensive competition it will be imperative they use the few opportunities to get a bad bounce on goal that they can and look to shoot early and often. The other lines and the Caps elite puck-savvy defenders will have to step up and keep the shots coming and hope for a little puck luck on the notoriously bad ice of both venues.
The Rangers Top Six:
Detractors on both sides will create asinine arguments about this but the reality is both team’s top six match up very well with one another. Callahan-Stepan-Hagelin & Nash-Richards-Zuccarello are dangerous. Period. The Rangers struggled for a good part of the season getting this all to click. Their secondary scoring dried up. Their play makers were shut down. And they generally looked lost outside of the occasional outburst. That was right up until the end of the season when things started to click and they’re riding the chemistry of these lines right into the playoffs.
Two line depth of that caliber forces the Caps to play primarily stay-at-home defensive pairings and both their third-and-forth lines matched to scoring lines as checkers (rather than as secondary scoring opportunity). The other danger is that Torts isn’t hard and fast with his lines, meaning within reason these lines can quickly become inter-changeable parts (along with some slick moves in-and-out of the third line) if things did start to break down for the Rags.
Playing Primarily Rangers Hockey
Whatever Rangers hockey is, the Caps cannot get stuck playing it. The Caps need to dictate the speed of the game and the style of play using their strengths and not allow Torts to slow it down to a grinding halt the way he and Hunter managed it last season. The Rangers like to hold the puck, they like to hit, they like to dive in the defensive zone and generally play into the strength of Torts tactical smarts. Oates and company have to figure out having the last line change most often in a seven game series how to exploit the Rangers system and by being opportunistic to any breakdown in the Rangers they see with their creative and diverse puck movement skills.
There’s a sense among fans that the Rangers system is infallable to the kinds of skills the Caps possess and the season series bears out some of that fear (even though the games came when the Caps were playing a much different level of hockey then how they ended the second half). When the Caps played at their best (including in some of their pretty miraculous comebacks) they dominated the play by using their bodies to create opportunities and their raw talent to do the rest, of which a team boasting league leaders Ovechkin, Backstrom, Ribeiro and Green there’s more than most (Pittsburgh aside). It starts with their strength on the backside, use multiple adept puck moving D-men to create opportunities in the transitional play that other teams, including the Rangers can’t match.
The Caps Intangible
Oates. He is the difference maker here. There’s not a lot of tape to look at to X-and-O the Caps into a defined strategy in this shortened season, unlike the amount of tape available on say Torts style of managing. The Caps don’t feature a defined style yet since they are still a work-in-progress, transforming from the team that struggled under two coaches and three completely different systems in the last two years into a this season’s single biggest turn around.
Despite his lack of experience as a head coach he has a lot of experience working with players, be it as a player himself elevating Hull, Neely and Bondra, or as an assistant doing the same for St. Louis and Kovalchuk. He’s taken his elite players and redefined them in the likes of Ovi, Backstrom & Green, he’s mentored the youth in Carlson, MoJo and the call-up kids from Hershey. He sees their strengths and works with them to exploit it while teaching them how to fix their imperfections. Doubtful he’ll pull out something drastically new in the playoffs, but also doubtful we’ve seen all that Oates has to offer so far out of this group of Caps.
Three important points for the Canadians:
Get the Swagger back:
When the Habs were winning they were confident. When the training wheels fell off near the end of the season they looked like deer in headlights. They cannot allow their play to feel flat-footed and broken. The fluid, seamless drive between their puck moving defense featuring P.K. Subban and the return of Andrei Markov to a front six of Gallagher-Eller-Pacioretty & Gionta-Plekanec-Borque needs to return. The stand up play that Carey Price possesses needs to return. The defensive responsibility they demonstrated at their core needs to return. The swagger this team came out of the gate with and dominated the North East at times needs to return. When they play in control, they match up well to most everyone in the East and they need to mentally and emotionally return to a state of mind where they feel good about how they are playing. Without this they could face a rough series and an early exist against a team that at least on paper could be perceived as a pretty even matchup.
Finding the Secondary Scoring Sweet Spot
This could be said of every team but the Habs have the depth with their second line, their offensive blueliners plus Ryder-Desharnais-Prust to actually flex it and they must. The third line is a big difference between the Habs and the Sens as Ottawa doesn’t possess a two-way third line of the same kind of offensive ability that Montreal can ice.
The flipside being, what the Habs possess in extra offense is off-set by the Ottawa depth on defense, both in their actual blueliners and within their bottom six forwards. Matching the Habs extra firepower up against this will be key in the Habs achieving success in the series. They need to use speed, agility and accuracy to create opportunities for themselves against a large and mostly limber Ottawa team.
Play for Speed
The biggest advantage the Habs have is their speed. As a team they are fast, they pass well and they can transition on a dime. This is a rare gift, and one they will need to exploit in order to keep Ottawa on its heals. The entire game’s tempo needs to be predicated on keeping the Sens sizable defenders moving, a lot, to wear them down and create angles and opportunities that are more difficult for Anderson to defend against as they move the puck in the offensive zone. The Habs players are moving north-south while the Ottawa defense feels like it’s moving east-west to chase the puck creates the illusion of lots of movement while playing into the strength of the Habs. They need to leverage that along the five-man units they strive for so communication will be critical. the idea isn’t advocating run-and-gun, it’s more to play up the strength the team was built for in effective, efficient puck movement and a range of offensive attacks to keep goalies guessing.
Three biggest concerns facing the Ottawa:
It goes without saying, Anderson was a huge piece of the Sens success this season. He’s overcome adversity with the injury and still managed to put up spectacular numbers. He stole quite a few games for the Sens to keep them playoff bound and meticulously patrolled the crease throughout the season against some of the leagues best snipers. He will aim to continue blocking everything the stout Sens defense does give up which makes it imperative the Habs test him early and often with anything they can throw at net. It probably wont’ be the pretty goals that win against someone like Anderson and since the Habs don’t necessarily have the bodies for regular scrums in the crease they will have to be creative in knuckling in some of their shots to create an advantage.
The Senators are not the team to get into a grudge match with. They are big on all sides and can hit, hard. The Habs need to out-finesse Ottawa not try and out hit them. Obviously, one cannot avoid every battle along the boards or in the crease, but minimizing stand up hits on open ice, and extra bumps along the offensive blue line would go far in de-emphasizing the physical play of Ottawa. The Habs need to pickpocket players rather than use the body to take them off the puck, cycle rather than physically attack and play smart because if they get banged up they won’t be able to take advantage of their own strengths.
Exploiting the Sens might be more than making them move because they aren’t as crafty as the Canadiens are, it’s also because they’ve had a lot of injury rotation and their lines and defensive pairings might not have the same level of un-stated presence or even just basic communication.
A 24-time Stanley Cup champion (second only to the NYY in professional team titles) and the only team in any of the major men’s North American professional sports to win in every decade of their existence up to that point the Habs are still Canada’s team to beat. Why is that a concern? Twenty years ago was the last major run of the Montreal Canadiens. The further they get from 1993 the more the pressure mounts.
They managed to shirk the series against original six foe Toronto only to draw fellow countrymen in the Sens, so the task isn’t any easier this year in that there’s an expectation for some kind of Canadian success and the Habs are severely overdue to take home the Cup. This team represents one of the better opportunities to do so, particularly after the implosion that brought on the regieme change in the off-season.
Ottawa acutely know this and the local press will exploit it almost as much as the Montreal home press and international coverage will meaning there’s no escaping 1993.
The Habs Intangible
Short of saying, well, they are the friggin Montreal Canadiens what else could you say about this year’s Habs? Probably Markov. His puck moving abilities open up ice for Stubban and Tinordi to do the same because opposing teams have to respect his ability. He makes the offense that much more lethal not by what he brings to it in puck movement and shooting but again by how much ice he can open up for them as opposing teams have to look toward him. It isn’t just his puck skills that serve the 12-year veteran well, it’s his ability to lead a corp of defensively responsible blue liners. His -9 rating this year aside many of the more advance metrics show a greater balance in the career +18 player and he has the support of Price behind him who seems to also play better in the presence of an empowered Markov. The time’s he’s been injured the Habs haven’t been the same team and having him back this season playing all 48 games was a difference maker for the Habs D which he led.