Canadiens-Capitals Round One Preview: Is Doomed Too Strong a Word?

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Canadiens-Capitals Round One Preview: Is Doomed Too Strong a Word?
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens snuck into the playoffs by losing their last game in a shootout to the Toronto Maple Leafs.

That bodes ill for a team set the task of upsetting the No. 1 seed in the league, the Presidents' Trophy-winning Washington Capitals.

The Capitals lead the league in scoring with 46 more goals than the second best Vancouver Canucks (272). The team features Alex Ovechkin, who has again scored 50.

Nicklas Backstrom had a 100-plus-point season playing with Ovechkin. Alex Semin provided more than a point a game. Mike Green, despite missing out on playing for Canada's Olympic team, looks like the best rushing defenseman in the league since Paul Coffey.

Past versions of this team have lacked supplementary scoring. This year there's a host of contributors from the second and third lines. Mike Knuble managed 29 goals in 69 games. Brooks Laich scored 25. Tomas Fleischmann had 23, and Eric Fehr scored 21.

Team defense always gets the knock with any big scoring team. Often these teams are just too darn busy in the opposing end to worry about playing in their own. The Capitals gave up a not inconsiderable 233 goals, which puts them in the middle of the pack defensively.

The big Slovak Milan Jurcina, who had some nice moments at the Olympics, might have helped keep things clear in front of his net, but he's hurt and may miss more than just the first round.

The biggest problem that Washington has had is the same one that Chicago and Philadelphia have in spades: inconsistent goaltending.

Jose Theodore has never regained his early career form. The Capitals started him against the punchless Rangers last year, and he let in a couple soft goals that cost them the first game of the series. He was quickly replaced, and Washington barely managed to take the Rangers in seven.

Theodore is in the last year of his contract and has had an average year: 2.81 GAA, .911 save percentage. He won the starting job back from youngster Semyon Varlamov, and an average goalie in Washington makes out like a bandit. He's won 30 games.

The playoffs, however, are harder than the regular season. Some goalies who look great in the regular season, like, say, Evgeni Nabokov of San Jose, are merely ordinary when faced with playoff pressure and speed. Goaltending could be the weak link on this Stanley Cup contender.

The Montreal Canadiens may be just the kind of team Theodore needs to warm up with though. They're the worst full-strength offensive team in the league. They have the distinction of being one of the two playoff teams that have had more goals scored against them than they've scored.

Only in the new NHL could a team score six fewer goals than it gives up and still manage to generate a .537 winning percentage. Montreal has a 15-10 record after 60 minutes. Those 15 extra points have inflated their record and made them look like a much better team than they are. Without shootout or overtime, Montreal would have finished 10th in the East, four points behind Atlanta, with a .445 winning percentage. 

This is not a good hockey team, and there will be no shootouts or four-on-four overtimes to bail them out. The defense features a large number of veterans yet has shown one of the lowest panic thresholds I've ever seen. Montreal finished the season giving up a fifth-worst in the league 32.1 shots per game. You don't want to give Ovechkin and company 32 shots a game.

The veterans on the defense—Jaroslav Spacek, Roman Hamrlik, and Hal Gill—were all top 10 in the league in giveaways. Gill is so glacially slow that Montreal almost looks like they're killing a penalty whenever he's faced with team speed. Washington, you may have guessed, is fast.

One of the team strengths is that second best in the league power play. This seems great until you realize the best power play in the league belongs to Washington. Combine that with the fact that Montreal got the fewest chances in the league on the power play, by far, and you have to fear the power play won't bail them out.

The young goaltending tandem of Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak is perhaps the best in the league. Halak on his own has been a top-five goalie since the Olympic break, and he has a .924 save percentage for the season.

Perhaps if the power play scores a couple, the Habs shut down Ovechkin for a game, and Halak stands on his head, Montreal will win a game. Halak is probably going to have to be stellar just to keep the scores respectable. Double digits in multiple games for Washington would not surprise me.

Doomed, in retrospect, is not too strong a word. The Canadiens will not challenge the Washington Capitals in this round of the playoffs. Hope for low scores and a lucky win. This one could get ugly.

Washington 4, Montreal 1

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