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.


  1. Is there a support group out in PItt for us caps fans? My buds and I are from dc but stuck here for med school and wanna take over a bar for the game

  2. I'm not in Pitt right now or I'd help, but I recommend Buffalo Blues on S. Highland Street over in Shadyside. That always seemed the friendliest place for non-Pittsburgh teams. Just get there early, it gets crowded during playoffs.