Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Rangers-Caps Game 6 Preview

It should come as no surprise to anybody who has ever read my blog that I am somewhat of a Caps naysayer. I have had very little faith in this team since about Game 5 against Montreal. My lack of faith is something that many find disturbing, and I can only assure you that it is not because of the players on the team. Rather, it is because of the management and coaching staff. With the Bruins losing to the Caps in seven games, and should the Rangers do the same, nobody will suggest blowing up the teams or changing their game styles, yet that is what happened in 2010 with the Capitals. The hockey we are seeing today is the direct result of that, and I think that it is a bad thing for the organization.

I find it disingenuous to say that the Capitals are now playing a more defensive style of hockey while allowing the second-most SA/60 of the remaining playoff teams, allowing about 33 shots per game. This does not include the blocked and missed shots, of which there are many. The Caps have actually blocked more shots than any other team in this year's playoffs. Blocking shots is great, and demonstrates a great commitment to the team, to Holtby, and to winning. But great defense would lead to a decrease in shots blocked, shots against, and missed shots, because great defense actually prevents the other team from getting those shots in the first place. A lot of what we as Caps fans have faced over the past two seasons is nothing but lip service, a lie. The defense is as bad as ever. The goaltending during the playoffs, and the team commitment to shot blocking, is what is keeping the Caps going. It cannot and will not last forever. Look at Montreal. Do we really want to emulate their "success?" They beat the Caps and the Penguins in 09-10, and then... what? Oh right, nothing. Their system failed as soon as their goaltending stopped being unstoppable, because the defense really is not that good. This system leads to injuries, fatigue, and if you're lucky, razor-thin goal margins where any mistake by either team could be their last of the season.

Washington should absolutely keep their commitment to shot-blocking, it has served them well (Game 5 OT goal notwithstanding). But that should not be mistaken for defense. There is more to it than that. There is clearing the puck out of your own end, stick and body checking, clogging passing lanes, creating turnovers. There is also the defensive side of offense, such as preventing turnovers. The body checking has been superb of late, as well, and should also continue. The rest of that defense? Average in some areas, depressingly bad in others, especially the preventing turnovers area.

My Caps keys for success tonight? Here's five:
  1. Hit hard, hit often. Wear their guys down. Hendrick, Brouwer, Laich, Chimera, Ovechkin... this team can hit. They have the strength and endurance to outlast and brutalize the other team. They'll need it. Make them regret receiving that pass. Make them regret going after you along the boards. Make them regret lacing up their skates today. Make them "hear footsteps" every time they have a scoring chance. The Rangers are a great hockey club, it won't be easy, but nothing in the playoffs ever is.
  2. Shoot. The. Damn. Puck. On a night where the Rangers allowed multiple odd-man rushes, and Lundqvist had an off-night, stopping less than 90% of the shots he faced, the Caps only took 18 shots on net. They also had fewer shots miss the net and fewer blocked than the Rangers. Ovi, Backstrom, Green, Semin, and Laich, not to mention career-year Chimera and underrated threat Hendricks, and oh yeah, Knuble... they should be able to score against King Henry on a bad night. Half of them should be able to score on a good night, too. But you can't score if you don't shoot. Even strength, power play, shorthanded, it doesn't matter. Shoot the puck, shoot it often, shoot it from everywhere. Most of the Caps goals have actually come from the point. Imagine if they crashed the net and took hard angle shots, too. Shoot the puck.
  3. Limit Johansson's ice time, don't limit Knuble's. One of these guys has been a liability and had a pretty lackluster playoffs. The other is Mike Knuble. I really like MoJo on the wing, and I thought he had a pretty good year, much better than I expected from him. But he is so not a first line guy. His propensity to turn the puck over, whether it's an ill-timed drop pass, an ill-timed clearing attempt around the boards, an inaccurate pass, or bobbling a clean pass from someone else, has really hurt the team. Yet he logs some of the highest minutes at 20:01. He is a forwards-worst -6, behind only Wideman and Schultz for the team worst (they are both a -7). Knuble, on the other hand, has as many points as MJ90 in three fewer games, is a +3, and averages a pathetic and mind-boggling 9:37 per night. He is ridiculously more effective than Johansson, and his minutes really need to start reflecting that immediately. I would not be against sitting Marcus tonight in favor of Perreault or Halpern. He just is not getting it done. Any of it.
  4. Avoid the defensive shell. These are the playoffs, and the opponent is the top team in the conference. You cannot be happy with a one goal lead. Hell, a two goal lead is apparently not even remotely safe. Hunter cannot force the team into the shell to end all shells yet again if the Caps take a lead. They need to keep pressure on Lundqvist and wear out their players. Make them play the two minute shifts for a change. A goal or two is not enough. Every offensive zone faceoff needs to have at least three of the following: Backstrom, Ovechkin, Semin, Laich, Green, Carlson. Every one. Beagle should never see an offensive zone faceoff, ever. He has no offensive abilities whatsoever. Face it, move on from it, and accept it. He has been shockingly effective at moving the puck into the offensive zone, but not so great at doing anything when he is there. Don't leave him there, especially since HE HAS YET TO TAKE A SHOT IN THIS SERIES. Offense in the offensive zone, it really should not be a novel concept.
  5. The powerplay. Make it happen, cap'n. Dive. I don't care what anyone says, the Caps need to draw some penalties. And since diving penalties are apparently back out of style this postseason, do it. Pull a Marchand or two or seven. Find a way. Bite your lip in a scrum. These are the playoffs, and this could be the last game. Pride doesn't win you a damn thing. Don't think for a second that the Rangers won't do it. And when there is a powerplay? Wideman, Green, Hamrlik, Carlson. Those are your point guys. No forwards on the point. Period. Carlson and Green on the first powerplay, and on the point. Crazy successful there. Don't ignore it.
So what do I realistically think will happen tonight? A blowout, in true Caps fashion. 5-2 Rangers. That's less severe than the dream I had last night where the Caps lost 7-4 and had to use the Predators' backup goalie to finish the game.

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