With the playoffs starting tonight, the questions on some Washingtonians’ minds are, “will this be the Capitals’ year and can they win 16 postseason games to capture the Stanley Cup?” The answer to these questions begins against the Montreal Canadiens. If it is indeed their year, they must get past the Canadiens and here is a look of how the teams matchup.
On the surface, it seems that the Capitals have the automatic edge because they have Alex Ovechkin. In reality, it is the third and fourth line players who often have the biggest impact in a playoff series. Sure, Ovechkin will score his goals, but it is the role players who need to do well if the Caps or Canadiens hope to make it out of the first round.
When you talk about Washington and role players, the fourth line of Matt Bradley, David Steckel and Boyd Gordon comes to mind. These three have provided the spark for the team the whole season.
They may not score the flashiest goals, but the trio scores some of the most important. It is hard to forget Game Five against the New York Rangers in last year’s playoffs. Washington was on the brink of elimination, and Bradley propelled the team to a 4-0 win, scoring the game’s first two goals. Those two goals would propel Washington to win the series.
Montreal’s role players aren’t anything to laugh at. While they may not have the energy and pure motivation of the Caps’ fourth line, Montreal’s fourth line of Tom Pyatt, Maxim Lapierre and Marc-Andre Bergeron is experienced and physical.
The hockey world probably remembers Lapierre for his boarding hit on Scott Nichol in early March that netted him a four-game suspension. It is his physicality that makes him such a great player for Montreal. In the playoffs, it is all about driving the net and scoring dirty goals down low, Lapierre isn’t afraid to do that.
Perhaps the weakest link on Montreal’s fourth line is Marc-Andre Bergeron. He is a defenseman, but he double shifts on the fourth line, too. As a result, he isn’t the greatest forward and may be overly tired toward the end of a game.
Unlike the forwards, good playoff defenders are all about pure skill and ability. Unfortunately for those rooting for Canada’s team, Montreal is completely outmatched compared to Washington. Where does one start with Washington’s defensive line up? Should it be with Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green, league +/- leader Jeff Shultz or rookie X-factor John Carlson?
For the sake of discussion, let’s start with Green, who has quietly put together the best year of his career. He has a laser-fast shot from the point, is fourth on the team in power play goals with 11 and has the nickname of “game over Green.” He has also improved his defensive play in the second half of the season.
Carlson has the ability to steal a game in the playoffs. His heavy shot and superior speed makes him the ideal type of playoff defenseman, since he can skate the length of the ice and score if asked too. If the Canadiens don’t pay attention to him, he could very well make them pay.
Unlike Washington, the Canadiens don’t have much going for them on the blue line. They do have Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek, but they add little more than a veteran presence. Don’t look for too much offense out of the Montreal defensemen, as they are purely defensive minded.
Everything couldn’t go Washington’s way and where the team falters is in net. Jose Theodore has been solid all season, but hasn’t turned any heads. On the other side of the ice is Jaroslav Halak, who has posted much better numbers but hasn’t gotten the goal support Theodore has.
If he were to take the Caps all the way, Theodore’s season would be the feel good story of the year. After floundering for several years and losing his young son in August, Theodore turned in a 30-win season. If he can get on a hot streak, Theodore will be a force to be reckoned with. On the other hand, if he reverts to the Theodore of old, don’t be surprised if there isn’t a switch between the pipes early in the series.
Halak has the numbers to back up why he could be great in the playoffs, but truth is we haven’t seen him in a high-pressure situation. He is technically sound and makes some flashy saves, but that was in the regular season. The Canadiens will ride him as far as he will take them, if he is on fire, the Canadiens will be as well.
When all is said and done, Washington’s offense should be able to overwhelm the Canadiens. While Montreal will be able to steal a game or two, Ovechkin’s team is determined to win a Cup and won’t falter in the first round.
Prediction: Capitals in 5