The 2011 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as is every NHL postseason, a treacherous hike. The Capitals would be in the Rockies if this was a race to cross the country, suffocating from lack of oxygen and preparedness. If this team is to regain their traction in this icy climb they need to follow my three keys for tonight’s Game 4 in Tampa Bay.
How massive the pressure of scoring first tonight is for this organization. I told some friends right after Game 2 that if the Capitals could not pot the puck first in Game 3, the series would be over. It turns out they did score first, even if they didn’t, and it’s the only reason I am not sticking to my prediction — that and hope. These playoffs, the Caps have taken the first lead of the game twice, both times against the Rangers, and both times they won. Tampa Bay has relinquished the lead to the Caps twice (Game 1 and Game 3) in this series. But that volatility in scoring presents the Caps with the challenge of playing two different styles of games, one of catch up and one of disciplined defensive responsibility. I believe it is that very volatility that Tampa dealt with in the regular season and their series against the Penguins that made them comfortable playing in any situation.
There is no denying the Caps have dealt with the same pressures throughout this season and even prior, but I believe they are one-dimensional in the sense that they play either catch up — as they did in Game 4 against the Rangers and Game 2 this series — or team defense. They are the best team in the league when trailing. The inherent problem is that the Caps are a better team, as most are, when they score first and establish their strategy from the first puck-drop. Scoring a tying goal at the beginning of the second period as Knuble did last night, while huge for a team’s momentum, only gives the club 40 minutes to work its system. If the Caps can score first tonight, we should see their resiliency, but if Tampa can shake Washington out of the lead, we will know which club really deserves it.
Pucksandbooks sent me a link this morning regarding Keith Jones and Mike Keenan’s reaction to Boudreau’s coaching ability. I watched CSN and didn’t catch their analysis. Last night, Boudreau asked his captain to serve the penalty for the Too Many Men call, which put the clubs four-on-four for well over a minute. The thrust of the Jones and Keenan critique was: How in the world could Gabby have the world’s best player confined to the sin bin for a minute-plus of 4-on-4 play? Additionally, what if Tampa had taken an additional penalty — think the Caps would have liked having Ovi out on the ice in that situation? Boudreau was badly outcoached last year against Montreal, despite going up 3-1 in the series, and he seems to be replicating his naivety of NHL playoff hockey. In fact, he’s making a rookie coach look like Scotty Bowman.
Last night, with Mike Green out, Boudreau elected to have John Carlson sit on the bench while Ovechkin attempted to skate through center ice on the breakout. If there’s been one composed player in the lineup skating the puck at center ice and dumping it deep, it has been Carlson. To leave him on the bench and go with five forwards (Brooks Laich at the other point) and Semin at wing, was in my opinion a grave error. Semin should have been on the bench. There is a reason why Boudreau has above a 70 percent win record in the regular season. There is also a reason why he is 17-19 in the NHL postseason.
This has plenty to do with Bruce Boudreau’s questionable coaching decisions, but I believe a dose of Matt Hendricks and possibly the first Caps fight of these playoffs can go a long way in Game 4. Katie Carrera of the Washington Post noted that Hendricks came off the ice early and was seen taping his sticks up, which is a positive sign, but just a sign. In our last post, I dissected the Caps errors and made particular note of the Caps’ inability to win pucks below the circles and behind the net. Hendricks does that for this team and is defensively reliable. Marco Sturm needs to be scratched for this game and Hendricks inserted.
Sturm has been a major on-ice disappointment for the Caps since arriving, but he is a veteran and his past performances has earned him status. He’s been good for this team as a veteran member with leadership skills, but I don’t believe that he has contributed in any positive or lasting fashion on the playing surface. In fact, putting him on the fourth line is on par with Glen Hanlon’s decision to start Nicklas Backstrom on the Caps third and fourth lines back in 2007. Sturm should be playing at least third line minutes, but as Boudreau has seen his play dip, the coach assigned him fourth line duty for much of last night. Mistake. Hendricks will play the role of a fourth liner and Sturm will not – case closed.
If the Capitals can manage to score first, be composed on the ice and bench, and use Matt Hendricks in the corners and for some rough stuff, there is some hope for success tonight. Just ask Philadelphia or Chicago. Series turnarounds do happen no matter what the odds. Tampa’s hallmark may be the trap but they are also awfully inconsistent. Unless Boudreau & Co. can do to this series what they did in Game 4 against the Rangers, a new regime is in order by week’s end.