There are eight teams left vying for hockey’s grand prize, and this morning, it’s interesting to reflect on the relative status of our Capitals. Put bluntly: have the Capitals ever looked quite as formidable and buzz-worthy relative to their remaining competition in the final eight as they do this spring? “Everything is falling into place for the Capitals,” proclaims a new Yahoo analysis.
It’s simultaneously exciting and a potential curse: everybody’s picking the Caps to win this series versus Tampa.
But there’s a reality this spring that can’t be ignored: Two teams among 16 this postseason distinguished themselves for the efficiency with which they plowed through the first round — Detroit and Washington. It’s interesting that the Caps are being heralded as prime Cup finalist contender while the Coyote-mauling Wings are, comparatively speaking, an afterthought. That may have something to do with this: Detroit must navigate San Jose and likely Vancouver to emerge from out West. Have fun with that.
And Vancouver, our reigning President’s trophy winner . . . has had its sails clipped a bit by virtue of surviving a serious first-round scare with the Hawks, coughing up a 3-0 lead in the process. Someone between Philly and Boston is required to take stand as obstacle in the Eastern conference finals. Neither will cause Bruce Boudreau to lose sleep. More than a few observers believed that the Rangers potentially offered the Caps their most difficult challenge in the Eastern conference.
Two weeks ago, Michal Neuvirth was something of a question mark, if only by virtue of his age and NHL postseason inexperience. Today, do you think the Flyers might like to have him in place of their three-headed monster of ineptitude between the pipes? (Or might not the Canucks for that matter?) He’s competed in 15 professional hockey postseason series and won all 15. Nifty, no? And if for some reason Neuvirth suddenly becomes average, look what’s positioned immediately behind him as stand-by, quality depth. To scan the forecasts of the second round in the East is to see consensus that the Caps prevail over Tampa in either 5 or 6 games. All such forecasters presumably are steeped in the grotesque Capitals’ postseason shortcomings of the past, but among them there seems a recognition that this spring is different. And that’s telling.
No one seriously posits that any GM had a better late February than George McPhee. Marco Sturm has been a good fit; Jason Arnott an all-time good fit. In this second round versus Tampa, the Capitals are likely to see the returned services of Dennis Wideman. What if he looks 75 percent as good as he did at the time of his injury? Then this happens: some defenseman who’s played well for the Caps this spring will be required to sit. A player the caliber of Scott Hannan could be in the Capitals’ third defensive pairing. Exactly when did that last happen with a Capitals’ blueline in the warm weather months?
On the face of things, the Capitals and Lightning were separated by just four points in the Southeast this season and therefore ought to engage in a lengthy and highly outcome-uncertain Eastern semifinal series. I’m not so sure. Leave in place all of the notable and prolonged injuries the Capitals endured during the regular season, but grant them this back in autumn: the roster additions they made at the trade deadline. And give the ‘Bolts Dwayne Roloson all season as well. This is a fair point to raise because after all theses are the rosters the Capitals and Lightning are competing with beginning tonight. Add Wideman to the blueline and eliminate the five months of second line center by committee carousel the Caps perpetrated — Jason Arnott centering Alex Semin all season long. The verdict I come up with is a solid double-digit division triumph for the Caps. Again.
This opponent, however, is not one to be taken lightly. Steven Stamkos is a game-breaking talent — if playoff unproven. Martin St. Louis is aging like fine wine. Roloson is proving to be the reliable backstop Steve Yzerman dreamed of.
The ‘Bolts’ blueline is big but lumbering — the Capitals can exploit that unit if they gain puck possession with numbers beyond the trapping Tampa forwards in the neutral zone. But these burly blueliners also block a lot of shots (Eric Brewer had 27 in round one; Mattias Ohlund and Victor Hedman will well clog life in front of Roloson as well). The Capitals made a commitment to blocking a lot of shots against a shot-blocking Rangers club in their opening round. That needs to continue.
Tampa can’t match the Caps in offensive depth, but they’ve a bevy of wonderful role players up front. No forward impressed me as much as Nate Thompson against Pittsburgh. Gifted skater, courage coming out of his ears — he reminds me of Brooks Laich a bit. Ryan Malone, too, is a gamer, and Sean Bergenheim is highly versatile and effective in all areas of the ice. And somewhat quietly, Simon Gagne picked up 7 points versus the Pens. Neither Gagne nor Vincent Lecavalier possess their game-breaking great status of five years ago, but they’re both grizzled playoff veterans who’ll help in key situations.
It’s likely we’ll see a lot of New Time ugly hockey in this series. The Caps are a defensive minded club these days; Tampa will try to score a game’s first goal and make a mess of the neutral zone thereafter. Bruce Boudreau seemed amused by Tampa’s 1-3-1 setup at times during the regular season. It will be interesting to see how he attacks it this spring (having Dennis Wideman back soon would help).
- There’s a bit of a Mendoza line for the Capitals when it comes to penalties in this series, I think, and I peg it at the number 4. Four or fewer power plays for Tampa each game and the Caps’ magnificent PK group ought to be ok. But beyond that, the Caps flirt with serious danger. The brilliance of the Tampa power play — it’s operating at 29 percent effectiveness this postseason — is a potential series-changer. The Caps need to be a disciplined club in this series especially.
- Get shots through to Roloson, and get on the board early against him. A heavy workload is an excellent strategy against a forty-something goaltender who saw a heavy workload down the stretch of the regular season and seven games in the opening round.
- Be patient against Tampa’s 1-3-1. Seams for stretch passes in it can be found — and the Caps often found them well in regular season matchups with Tampa.
- Get the puck on Alex Semin’s stick in this series as often as possible, in time and space, preferably. In four regular season games against the ‘Bolts Sasha was very good: 7 goals and 2 assists.
Caps in 6.