Postseason Game 1: Washington Capitals vs. Montreal Canadiens

The puck drops on the Washington Capitals’ post season tonight, as they battle the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the 2010 Stanley Cup playoffs. Where the Caps ended the regular season as the leagues’ Presidents’ Trophy winners, the Habs finished in 19th with 88 points. Although Montreal didn’t qualify for the playoffs until the second-to-last day of the regular season, finishing 33 points behind the Caps in the standings, if you watched any of their four previous meetings you’d be surprised to find the difference so great.

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OFFENSE:

Washington’s offense was unmatched this season, netting 46 more goals than the Vancouver Canucks who was 2nd in the league in goals scored. DC led the league in goals (313), goals/game (3.82), goals at home (156), goals on the road (157), 5-on-5 goals (213), power play goals (79), 1st period goals (92), 2nd period goals (103), and 3rd period goals (112). 

In these same areas, the Candiens ranked 26th in goals and goals/game (210 and 2.56, respectively), 23rd in goals at home (112), 21st in goals on the road (21st), 26th in 5-on-5 goals (132), 11th in power play goals (57), 27th in 1st period goals (59), 16th in second period goals (77), and 26th in 3rd period goals (66).

The Capitals also can boast that two of the league’s four 100-point scorers are on their roster in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Capitals can also boast that they employ 10 double-digit scorers, including 7 who have netted more than 20 goals. The Habs have 8 skaters with double-digit scoring, with three members netting 20+ (Brian Gionta-28, Michael Cammalleri-26, and Tomas Plekanec-25).

The Capitals have also been strong when taking face-offs this season, ranking 6th in the league after the end of the season (51.5%). A key proponent of their success has been Dave Steckel who is currently ranked 2nd in the league, winning 59.2% of his draws. Hopefully some of his luck rubs off on the newly anointed second-line center, Tomas Fleischmann. In the last 5 games he played, Flash won 39% of his draws, which is not nearly good enough to drive a team to the finals. For the regular season, the Canadiens won 49.7% on the dot – ranking 16th in the NHL.

DEFENSE:

The Capitals allowed an average 2.77 goals/game during the regular season, ranking 16th in the NHL GA/G. Only three of the teams allowing more G/G are making a playoff appearance; the Avalanche, the Senators, and the Penguins. Montreal allowed 2.66 goals per contest this season, ranking 13th in the NHL.

Additionally, Washington has averaged 32.8 shots a game while allowing opponents to take 30.9 shots. Montreal, while taking an average of 28.6 shots/game, has allowed its opponents to take less shots than the Caps (31.1 SA/G). When the Caps are outshot, they have the ability to succeed – with a winning % of .649 when being outshot. Conversely, the Habs only win .452% of contests when being outshot.   

GOALIE:

Former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jose Theodore was named Thursday to be the Caps goaltender for the 2010 playoff run. Although he took a puck off his knee from Dave Steckel in practice yesterday, Coach Bruce Boudreau addressed the media saying that Theo experienced a “stinger” and was removed as a precaution, quickly adding that he did not have any concerns about his goalie’s health.

Theodore’s play this season has been very reminiscent of his 2002 Hart and Vezina trophy winning campaign. He enters the post season undefeated in regulation since January 12th, boasting a 20-0-3 record along the way coupled with a  2.58 GAA and a .922 save %. Since his 7-4 loss to the Lightning which started his tear, Theo was able to set a personal (and Capitals franchise) record with a 10-game win streak.

Theo’s over-the-top statistics aside, tonight will be the first time he will start against his old team this season. In the first 4 meetings between the Capitals and the Canadiens this season, Semyon Varlamov and Michal Neuvirth each started two games. Theodore did see time during the February 10th game when he spelled an injured Nevui, entering the game at 2-2 and allowing 3 goals in 6:11 before Tomas Plekanec potted the game winner in overtime with 8 seconds remaining.

On the other end of the ice, Jaroslav Halak gets the nod between the pipes for the Habs. Halak has been strong in his games since the Olympic Break, assembling a 9-3-3 record with two shutouts, a 2.07 GAA and a .926 save %. Like Theodore, he did not start any of the 4 meetings against his first-round opponent this season.

SPECIAL TEAMS:

Washington ended the season as the top-ranked power play in the NHL with a 25.2% success rate. DC’s PP was marginally better at home (25.6%) than on the road (24.8%). Conversely, the Caps were 25th in the league on penalty kill opportunities, successfully snuffing 78.8% of opponents chances with an extra man. The Capitals’ 83.2% PK at home puts them in the top half of the league, however a road PK of 74.8% is good for 27th in the league. The only playoff team with a worse kill is the Nashville Predators.

The Capitals biggest weakness are the penalties they draw at inopportune times. Although the Caps are in the top 3rd of the league in PIM/G, a sub-par PK can easily be exploited by the Habs. The postseason is no place for lazy pokechecks-turned-hooking minors, nor any offensive zone penalties.

Montreal finished the season boasting the leagues’ second best power play (21.8%), and took advantage of the Caps’ weak penalty kill this season converting 5-of-14 (35.7%) chances. Additionally, Montreal’s road power play percentage was the best in the league at 28.3%, edging the Caps, who were 2nd (24.8%). This is where the Canadiens can take full advantage of the Caps, and win close games. The Habs were 12th in the league with a 83.0% PK rate.

SIDE NOTES:

While Montreal and Washington both sold out every home game this season, The Canadiens stem from a long tradition of winning, with over a century of hockey and 24 Stanley Cup championships under their belt. Conversely, the Capitals are aiming to have their names etched onto the Cup for the first time in their 35-year history, and are looking to build on 2008 and 2009’s post-seasons.

For the second consecutive season, the Canadiens headed into the playoffs ranking 8th in the Eastern Conference. They aim to avenge last season’s first-round loss to the top seeded Boston Bruins by taking down this year’s Goliath, the Washington Capitals. Since 1994- when the NHL adopted its current playoff format- the eighth-seeded team upset the top seed 8 times in 30 attempts, including in 2002 when the 8th-ranked Habs knocked out the top ranked Bruins in 6 games.

The two meetings between the Capitals and the Canadiens at the Verizon Center this season both stand out, but for separate reasons. The first meeting of these two teams were on November 20th, where the Habs handed the Caps their first regulation loss at home. Since that date, DC only dropped 4 more contests in regulation on the season. When Montreal visited the Verizon Center again for the first home stand of 2010, Alex Ovechkin took the ice for the first time wearing the captain’s C and lead the Caps answered with a 4-2 win, their largest margin of victory against the Habs this season.

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