With the playoffs upcoming, it might be a good idea to look ahead at some of the potential obstacles the Caps will need to overcome in order to reach the Stanley Cup. There are quite a few, some tangible, some not.
Up first, are the Caps themselves. Their mental and defensive games are the aspects I tend to focus on. Their playoff history is no secret. I am sure they are aware of the franchise calamity in the post season and last year’s sting is still fresh. Are they mentally tough enough to not jinx themselves?
I think they’ve gotten on the right path to do so. I’ve noticed a marked turn around in their mentality, that has translated into their actual playing. Take for example how they’ve tightened up defensively. Sure, there are drills and running through defensive scenarios in practice but I think it’s the individual efforts adding up to the total sum. Alexander Ovechkin is a microcosm of this. This year hasn’t been his greatest, offensively. Maybe it’s just a fluke bad year for Ovi. However, I feel it’s more than that. I think, as all captains do and should, he leads by example. He’s learned the wide open, shooting gallery style leaves much to be desired in the defensive end. While that kind of hockey will win some games, it won’t win you the whole deal. It won’t win you the Cup.
The Capitals have become more disciplined, which I think demonstrates the mental chops that will serve them well ,deep into the playoffs, in a series where they might find themselves a game down, or in a must win situation.
As for the Caps’ goaltending situation, Rigsby covered this quite well in a recent article. I won’t attempt to rehash much of anything he covered. They have 3 quality goaltenders, all with strengths and weaknesses. It’s been said the world over: they are pretty much interchangeable right now. With the team in front of them playing like they are, Holtby, Neuvy and Varly, are all capable of making the stops when they need to. It’s very nuanced and debatable as to who is the most skilled or the best man for the job. That will only change if injury or if one of them goes on a cold streak. Know that I relay that opinion through gritted teeth, because as a goaltender, I’d like to think a hot goalie can make a Cup run. This is true to some degree but given the Caps current situation, they are all steady and dependable, and that amounts to more than a hot streak. It’s tough to make a call in regards to who will be your stud through the playoffs. Goalies get in a zone and the uncertainty of who may even be playing night to night can and will have an effect. Having all that talent in net is a bane as much as it is a blessing.
So, there are just a few things in the Caps dressing room that needs addressing. What about the opposition? I mean, besides you’re standard 6ft 2in, 220lbs defenseman crushing Caps forwards into boards and glass? The most obvious, so much so it’s cliched, is defense and goaltending. It’s the mantra of the postseason.
The Rangers always have the same old song and dance. Even at this point in the season, it’s hard to tell if the Caps will face the Rangers in the playoffs. If they do, given the almost nonexistent offense in New York, the strength of the Capitals when it comes to that area, and the tight defense and goaltending, in reality all Washington would be facing are the New York Lundqvists. The Rangers can be scrappy though, and with Henrik Lundqvist in net, it won’t be a walk in the park. Take a look at the regular season meetings between the two. Yeah. Ouch. Seems like, for whatever reason the Rangers can find the back of the net when they play Washington and King Henrik has posted 2 shutouts against them, allowing only 4 goals in 4 games played. That would be a hard series for the Caps if it happens.
No matter the season, Philly is tough. Never take anything for granted with them. Keep your head up and bring your lunch pail. It will be a pretty daunting task to face them in the playoffs. What’s even scarier is they don’t lack in the goaltending department. Boucher, the veteran, always seems to flirt with a starter’s status. He is more than reliable. Bobrovsky, their rookie, is hot and they may ride him into the playoffs. However, his inexperience could be his undoing or he may come up big. That’s always the question with rookie goaltenders. I’m sure he’s looking to make a name for himself. Bob is solid but not overly flashy or spectacular. He doesn’t have any shutouts this season but has racked up almost 30 wins. The fact that the Flyers are always quick to pass blame on their goaltenders, and cut or pull them quick, may be an area the Capitals can capitalize on. Get a nervous and shaky rookie goalie shellacked, have him pulled, and you’ve not only racked up a few quick goals, you now have a cold goalie to replace him, hopefully on your way to a win. Easier said behind a keyboard, than done, I know. But if you can make Bob as uncomfortable as possible, add to the chaos of the already tense situation for him, and it could pay off for the Caps. I should state the obvious and say he is an NHL goaltender, so he is used to pressure to some degree, having a season under his belt. The shock and awe tactic may only work in Game 1.
If there is anything left of either team after a Boston-Montreal series, the Capitals would have their hands full with either team. As both of these teams’ goaltenders are nothing short of outstanding. Price is having a great year, after a miserable season in 2009-10. With Boston’s 1-2 punch of Thomas and Rask, it’s a wonder any team scores on them.
Expanding on Montreal a little, Price uses his size to his advantage while his age and athleticism yield a laser quickness that can make up for any mistakes in technique. Carey’s record against the Caps is only 1 win in 4 starts, and while he’s posted 4 shutouts since the All-Star break, he has only 10 wins with 11 losses total. Also worth mentioning is that he plays in Montreal, so any effort is scrutinized. It can, and has affected him from time to time. Any slip up automatically becomes a slump in Montreal. I pity any goalie playing there for that very reason but admire the fortitude it takes to let the negative press roll off.
As for Tim Thomas, he’s a cagey veteran that just hates to be scored on. He will fight tooth and nail until the lights and siren come on. He’s old school cool and really doesn’t care if we think that or not. He does whatever he has to do to stop the puck. Unpredictable is his nature, usually with good results. The rare one of the bunch, Thomas has bested Washington 3 times thus far, posting beastly numbers to match the rest of his “I’m not dead yet” season.
Pittsburgh is a solid team. Their offensive power is unquestionable, granted everyone needs to stay healthy at once for it to work, but that’s another issue. They even have defenseman that if they can’t outright score, can at least set plays up and be offensive minded.
Love Marc-Andre Fleury or hate him, you can’t take away the fact that he is a good goalie and keeps the Pens in games. He can come up big, has come up big, and can do it time and time again. The good news is, when it comes to playing Washington, he doesn’t do so hot. His GAA in the games is just under 2 and his save percentage is on par with his overall average, but still can’t seem to put up many wins against the Caps. It seems to be the team in front of him not holding up their end of the bargain.
If Buffalo manages to squeak into the top eight in the Eastern Conference, it would mainly be due to Ryan Miller. He is season after season, game after game, the workhorse and savior of a sometimes floundering Buffalo club. As with New York, you have to beat the goaltender, in order to beat the team. However, Miller’s only 1-2 against the Caps.
I mention the Tampa Bay Lightning last, as I’m unsure of their goaltending dominance. I say dominance, not reliability. Being steady and good, is enough with a good team in front of you. A goalie doesn’t need to make game savers night after night because the team in front of them never allows those chances to materialize in any kind of frequency. I think the Flyers and the Caps are good examples of that. If that sounds like I am trying to detract from those respective goaltenders, I’m not. With Philly and Washington, I think it’s too early to tell in their cases on how hall of fame worthy any of their goalies’ careers may be. With Dwayne Roloson in Hockey Bay, he’s a rock and that is a great thing to have in a goalie. Roloson is 2-2-1 against the Caps this year, with 2 shutouts. He is understated and that can hold surprises for teams. He’s like the wallflower that you’re sorry you overlooked at the prom. He doesn’t look too interesting in one moment and then SHA-ZAM, a knock-out the next. His record has to be taken into consideration, as it’s quite a lively rivalry the Caps and Bolts have going. Roloson is a competent goaltender and the Bolts’ offense is potent. A tough, quiet competitor is a difficult one.
So these are the immediate, Eastern Conference only obstacles standing in the way of the Caps. I hear there are some pretty decent goalies and teams out in the West as well. One trudging, difficult step at a time is the way you walk on the path to the Stanley Cup.