Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Caps-Bruins Game 4 (and beyond) Preview

Here's the deal. Not only can the Caps win this game, and ultimately win this series, but they should. They are, in terms of players and talent, the better team. Chara is a four-time Norris trophy finalist, one-time winner, and will probably be nominated again this year. Tim Thomas is an all-star, Vezina-winning, NHL record-setting, Stanley-Cup winning, Conn Smythe-winning goalie. We all know that, and yes, they are intimidating players to be up against in any game, let alone a tight playoff series. But beyond them, if you match up player-for-player... the Caps are better.

One thing that helps, of course, is the fact that Boston is without the underrated Nathan Horton, arguably their most well-rounded forward. He's cracked 30 goals once before. But let's match up (healthy) top-player for top-player here:

Tyler Seguin, Patrice Bergeron, and David Krejci vs. Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alex Semin

Remember, Russians disappear in the playoffs. Wait...
Seguin is probably Boston's most skilled forward, and he is only 20 years old and in his sophomore season. Bergeron is clearly their top center, and is absolutely a very skilled player. Krejci is another skilled player who was nearly a point-per-game player in last year's Cup-winning run. Bergeron is the only one to crack the 30 goal mark, ever. Seguin had 29 this year. All three of the Caps' players here can just about humiliate the Boston trio in terms of offensive production, skill, and overall hockey sense. Boston definitely is more of a physical, defensive-minded, agitating team than the Caps are, and Bergeron and Krejci can certainly play that game well. But Ovi is one of the league's hardest and most frequent hitters. Backstom plays both sides of special teams with great success. Semin? His defensive abilities are vastly underrated and have been put on display in this series. Washington's big three may not be known for defense, but that doesn't mean they can't play it. Oh, and how about point totals so far? In three games, Seguin, Bergeron, and Krejci have combined for one assist. The Caps' guys have a goal apiece and three combined assists. It's no question, the "Young Gun" forwards are superior players.

Zdeno Chara, Dennis Seidenberg, Johnny Boychuk, and Andrew Ferrence vs. Mike Green, Roman Hamrlik, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner

He actually forgot to start his playoff
beard until Monday morning. It made him sad.
Chara may very well win the Norris trophy this year. But let's not forget that Mike Green is a two-time finalist for the award as well, narrowly losing to Chara one of those years. Obviously none of the Caps players are as big as Chara, and honestly, none of them are as physical as Chara and Seidenberg are. But after Boston's top pairing, things trail off dramatically. While Green and Hamrlik may not be quite as good as Chara and Seidenberg, they are not a pairing to be overlooked, either. Hammer's regular season was undoubtedly a disappointment, but his time with Green has been productive and effective. Boychuk and Ferrence, on the other hand, are respectable defensemen, but do not hold up against the Caps other top-pairing in Carlzner. Carlson, like Hamrlik, had a disappointing season. Nobody really thinks a whole lot less of him, though. Everyone knows what he is capable of, especially when paired with long-time partner Karl Alzner. Alzner seemingly gets better with every game, and is one of the most solid defensive defensemen in the league. When paired with Carlson, they can block shots, hit, pass, and occasionally even score. Boychuk and Ferrence have specifically been targeted by Hunter and the Caps as weak points to be exploited by Washington's skilled players. They aren't bad players, but they aren't as good as the Caps. And since Chara and Seidenberg can't play all 60 minutes, especially when they are targeting/being targeted by Ovechkin, the Caps' top-four defensemen win out here.

Milan Lucic, Brad Marchand, and Rich Peverly vs. Brooks Laich, Marcus Johansson, and Troy Brouwer

Marchand, seen here, avoiding John Carlson's explosive sneeze
This is where Boston's "agitating" players come in, and they are among the best at what they do. Look only to Backstrom's tussle with Peverly and subsequent Game 4 suspension for that. Lucic is a pest, flying around the ice targeting players when the refs aren't looking, drawing retaliatory penalties, and getting players off their game. Marchand can frequently be seen flopping on the ice looking for his missing leg, arm, or head after being tapped on the shoulder. Despite all that, these guys can play hockey, too. Lucic and Marchand regularly score 20+ goals. But don't think that Troy Brouwer won't level any of these three if given the opportunity. Or that Brooks Laich won't block a shot, then pass it up the ice, then drive through them to the net, and then score the rebound goal. Or that Johansson won't absolutely blow by them at some point (although he will probably leave a drop pass for one of them, or pass instead of shoot, or shoot instead of pass...). There's a reason that Laich was given his contract. There's a reason why the Caps traded a first-round pick for Brouwer's negotiating rights. I may be a big critic of Johansson, but I know he has the speed and skill to develop into a top player. The other guys in the Bruins' top-six may be among the best at what they do, but so are the Caps' guys. At worst, I think it's an even matchup.

Tim Thomas et al. vs. ???

Right now, it's Braden Holtby. Before, it was Vokoun or Neuvirth. The fact remains is that Boston's goaltending probably wins out against the Caps. But Holtby has proven himself to be Thomas' equal through three games. Vokoun is out. Neuvirth is absolutely the worst of the three, and it would be a travesty if he starts a game in the playoffs, regardless of how far the Caps go. I don't care if nobody else listens to me, but Neuvirth is not a starting goalie. He wasn't last year, but they gave him the job anyway. He has been outperformed by every other goalie the Caps have started since Neuvirth played his first NHL game. That's just a fact. You cannot argue with it. You can argue about team play, about who "earned" a win, about who the team trusts, about sustainability, bad bounces, what have you. But you cannot argue that Neuvirth has outplayed Vokoun, Holtby, Varlamov, or even Theodore. Oh yeah, Thomas vs. these guys? Thomas wins it, unfortunately.

And then the rest...

Boston's supporting cast of bottom-six forwards and bottom-pairing defensemen features luminaries such as Gregory Campbell, Joe "Oh-No" Corvo, Benoit (balls) Pouliout, and resident "Holy crap he's still playing?!" player Brian Rolston (filling in for Mark Recchi). Many of the Caps' "bottom six" forwards routinely fill in on the top two lines, including veteran Mike Knuble, Jason Chimera and Mathieu "Remember that time I scored a hat trick against Boston when Ovi and Backstrom were out and then skated under five minutes in Game Three because I blew an assignment one time and my asshat coach decided that was worth over-shifting the rest of the team?" Perreault. And their "bottom pair" defensemen? That'd be Dennis Wideman and Jeff Schultz, with a healthy dose of rookie Dmitri Orlov on the side(lines). Oh, right, Wideman and Schultz have routinely played top-pair minutes this season and in the past. In terms of roster depth, I think it is more than fair to say that the Caps have the Bruins pretty well owned.

So what's the problem?

Hint: it's something in this picture
The problem actually has a name. That problem is Dale Hunter. I actually wanted him to replace Bruce Boudreau back before it was cool (a.k.a June and July). I was wrong. Hunter has proven himself to be an enigmatic-at-best, wants-nothing-more-than-to-return-to-London-at-worst coach. Mike Knuble, one of the most valuable assets that Caps have in any playoff series, continues to ride the pine, only likely coming into the lineup now that Backstrom has to miss a game. Jeff Halpern, former Washington Capitals captain and faceoff extraordinaire, is also on the bench. Who is skating in place of these two? Keith Aucoin and Jay Beagle. In the past I have thought that Aucoin should be in the NHL after years of tearing it up in the AHL. And he probably still should be. Just not in Washington. Jay Beagle has actually had a pretty good series, in the sense that he is only a -1, has eight shots, and is decimating Boston in the faceoff circle. But he is averaging over SIXTEEN MINUTES A GAME. I put that in caps because I wish I could shout it directly into your ear. Jay Beagle, who set career highs this year with 41 games played and FIVE points, is averaging over SIXTEEN MINUTES A GAME in the playoffs while Mike Knuble and Jeff Halpern sit on the bench. Halpern has a career low of 16 points while playeing in his third-fewest regular season games at sixty-nine. He also has a career-low shooting percentage of 6.3%, but was fifth in the league in faceoff percentage. So, at his worst, he has over three time as many points as Beagle while being one of the premier faceoff guys in the league. Beagle can play his heart out, and his best is not as good as Halpern's worst. But Halpern doesn't decide if he is in the game. Beagle doesn't decide to play 16 minutes a game. Hunter decides that. Hunter decides that he would rather have the undersized Keith Aucoin play more minutes than undersized Mathieu Perreault, despite the fact that Perreault has undoubtedly shown more skill and success than Aucoin in addition to being more familiar with the players on the team. He has decided that Mike Knuble really isn't all that, and that Aucoin should additionally get a spot over #22.

The Caps are the better team. But as long as Hunter continues to make horrible decisions in terms of personnel and ice-time management, they don't have a chance. Unless Beagle and Aucoin are replaced with their veteran, skilled counterparts, unless Perreault and Ward are freed up to do what they can do best, unless Schultz (who I still like, just not in this series) is replaced with Orlov (who is infinitely more skilled as a rookie than Erskine can ever hope to be), the Capitals will lose this series. They will probably lose Game Four. But if the best players are put out there, then despite all of Hunter's other bad decisions, the Caps can and should win this series. They have the better players.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Caps - Bruins Game 1 Preview

As usual with these things, I am cutting it a little close to game time here, so I'll keep it brief.

The Caps took the regular seasons series 3-1, including a 5-3 win that saw Mathieu Perreault get his first career hat trick. It was one of only nine times that the Capitals scored five or more goals, including a 5-4 OT win against Anaheim. Oh, and that was a game where Ovechkin, Green, and Backstrom were all suspended or injured. Tonight, of course, all of the "Young Guns" will be healthy and in the game. This will be the first time that Boston has had to face such a scenario.

Braden Holtby's first NHL appearance was against the Boston, making four saves on four shots in 10:09 of ice time on November 5, 2010. It is only fitting that his first NHL playoff appearance would be against the same team. The kid has amazing talent, and in limited appearances has posted a record of 14-4-3 with three shutouts since last season. Skilled rookie goalies are nothing to sneeze at in the playoffs, as quite a few luminaries have gone on to make their mark in the league. He has played well when called upon in the past, the team has expressed the utmost faith in him, and I join them.

Of course, the Caps are playing on the road. This is the playoffs. The Bruins are the defending Cup champs, and have been playing great hockey down the stretch. All-star players Tim Thomas and Zdeno Chara are two of the most formidable names for offensive-minded players, and this team knows how to win. They are a very physical team, and they will have no problem throwing their weight around tonight now that the league has pretty much OK'd everything.

Like I say, the playoffs are all about matchups. As little faith as I have had in this team for the past year, I absolutely believe that they can and will win this series... so long as Hunter doesn't coach like a fool. It's nice that he has been giving ice time to Jay Beagle, a very hard-working player that has endeared himself to many a Caps faithful over the years. Keith Aucoin has also been doing fairly well with increasing responsibility after years languishing in the AHL as one of that league's top offensive players. But to play them at all, barring injury, in the playoffs is simply a laughable notion when you have Jeff Halpern and Mike Knuble sitting on the bench instead of those two guys. If both of them are healthy and on the bench, the Caps lose this series, and rightfully so. They are currently both expected to be scratches. There is no reason to sugar coat this: benching them is absolutely moronic. It's how you lose games and cost people their jobs. Halpern + Knuble = a win tonight and a series win in six. If they don't get ice time, and the remarkably less skilled and experienced players get their spots, the Caps lose tonight and the series in no more than five. It won't be the goaltending, it won't be the system, it will be the coach making bone-headed, stupid, moronic moves that only...well, nobody who should be coaching at this level would make this mistake. So here's hoping that Hunter either gets his head on straight or that the current lineup plays above the abilities of the bottom six.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Looking at Possible First Round Matchups

So the Caps have clinched a playoff spot with the win over Florida and a Buffalo loss. Now what? Can a team that still has no identity, no set lineup, and is very likely being forced to roll with their AHL goalie tandem due to late injuries have a shot at surviving the first round? Well, as all Capitals fans SHOULD know by now, the NHL playoffs might as well be a whole separate season. Playing styles change, and team matchups matter a lot more when you have to see the same players and coaches for as many as seven games in a row. Adjustments and style adaptations are made more rapidly than the regular season. It helps to have a leg up on the other team to start a series, whether it's a morale issue or your players' strengths simply match up best against the other guys'.

Look back to Montreal for that lesson: the Habs were one of the few teams that Washington struggled against (read: at all) during the 09-10 season. A combination of an unconscious goaltender and incredible shot-blocking by the Canadiens led to an historic upset in the first round. Matchups, people, that's where I'm going with this. In 09-10, the top three seeds in the Eastern Conference lost in the first round, and the 7th and 8th seeds ended up playing to see who would go for the Cup. Nothing is guaranteed, and home ice can mean zilch if another team has your number and knows how to beat you. When it's all said and done, you can really only get one extra game at home, and the advantage is all about whether you win the first two games and crush the visitors' souls in the process. With all that said, before Saturday's plethora of action, here are your possible first round matchups:
  • 1st seed Rangers vs. 8th seed Capitals (1-2-0, 70 SF, 93 SA, 9 GF, 10 GA, 12.5 PP%, 91.7 PK%):

    Obviously the season series has yet to be decided, but this is your most likely matchup, as it will occur if both Ottawa and Florida get at least one point in their final games. And really, the numbers don't look too bad. Yes, the Caps did lose two of the three games, but despite being outshot by 23, the Rangers have only scored one more goal than our boys in red. The special teams numbers also favor the Caps, and with Backstrom and Green both healthy, the good news there could keep up. Throw in the fact that the Caps defeated the Rangers in five games last year, and seven two years before that, and you begin to see that things are a bit more even than they appear. History absolutely matters in the playoffs. Mental toughness goes a long way, and knowing that a lot of the guys you're playing against were directly responsible for your mid-April tee times two of the past three seasons will weigh on you. The final game of the regular season could just be the beginning of a best-of-eight rather than a best-of-seven. I honestly believe the Caps could win in six games, barring any further injuries to key players.
  • 2nd seed Bruins vs. 7th seed Capitals (3-1-0, 112 SF, 123 SA, 13 GF, 12 GA, 16.7 PP%, 87.5 PK%):

    If the Caps win their last game, the Panthers get a point, and the Senators lose in regulation, this will be your matchup. Despite what I have been seeing for the past 24 hours, I think this is absolutely the best possible matchup for this year's team. The Caps have had Boston's number for years now. Tim Thomas' career numbers against the team may be impressive (14-5-3 with a GAA of 2.46 and a .923 save % in 23 games vs. the Caps; h/t to Japers' Rink for the numbers), but he is 6-4-2 over the last four seasons, including his 3-0-0 record in his record-setting season last year. Our secondary scorers match up very well against this team, most notably Mathieu Perreault, who recorded his first career hat trick against Boston and Thomas in a 5-0 rout. They may be last year's Cup champions, but that doesn't always hold a lot of sway. Again, I think the Caps could win this in six, but having Holtby in net (who I'd still rather have in net any day than the league's 10th-worst goalie in Neuvirth) coupled with the Bruins 7-2-1 record in games 72-81 obviously has me a bit worried. But so does this whole season. Even still, I'd rather see this matchup in the first round rather than...
  • 3rd seed Capitals vs. 6th seed Devils (1-1-2, 85 SF, 100 SA, 8 GF, 13 GA, 0 PP%, 88.9 PK%):

    Should the Capitals defeat the Rangers and Florida loses to Carolina in regulation, the Caps will squeak out another Southeast Division title and claim the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Their opponents in this scenario will be the New Jersey Devils, a team against whom they have their second worst goal differential (Buffalo outscored the Caps by eight goals this season), and have failed to cash in on 14 power play opportunities. They are the only team in the East that the Caps have failed to score a powerplay goal against, although both teams have scored once while shorthanded. Johan Hedburg allowed two goals against on 40 shots in 125 minutes of ice time against DC, and likely starter Martin Brodeur... well, he is Martin Brodeur. Parise is playing for a huge contract in the offseason, and Kovalchuk will want to show up his fellow Russian stars. The Devils got better against the Caps as the season went on, losing the first game 3-1, then winning in two shootouts before shutting out Washington completely 5-0 last month. While this could have the makings of a fantastic playoff series, with the last minute division champs in Washington playing against the highly skilled and well-decorated Devils and Russian superstars as far as the eye can see, not to mention the home ice advantage Washington would enjoy, I have a feeling Ovechkin and company would be breaking out their clubs after just five games. I just do not see a lot of upside to this series. Home ice advantage can be nice, but like I said, it's all about matchups, and this just looks like an ugly one to me.
So, what is a team to do? Jumping up in the standings requires outside help and a win against the top seed, and you have to think that the Rangers would rather face slumping Florida or Ottawa than Washington. The Panthers and Senators are the only teams with double-digit overtime losses in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, and taking longer to lose in the playoffs gets you sent packing just as quickly. In fact, the Caps have more regulation and overtime wins than Florida, Ottawa, and New Jersey. Ottawa plays before the Caps and Rangers, and Florida gets going a half hour after the puck drops at Madison Square Garden. Scoreboard watching will be rampant, and may decide if one or both coaches consider playing their B-squads at some point during the game. Because it's all about matchups, folks.

Shameless plugging time! Before the Caps played the Panthers the other day, I recorded my first-ever podcast with my friend Pamitha for his fantasy sports site The Fantasy Brokers. Nothing says vanity like saying "Hey, listen to me talk for 45 minutes!" So for those of you who want to hear me discuss my blog and thoughts on key players from the 2011-2012 NHL season and what is going on with the Caps, if you have secretly wondered what I sound like on the phone, or if you just want proof that I actually have a friend, check out his site and our podcast.