Monday, April 11, 2011

It's about time, but I'm uneasy because I'm a Caps fan

Finally, the second season in hockey starts next week.  The one where the team left standing in June after four grueling playoff series gets to lift the Stanley Cup.  Hockey teams are defined by what they accomplish in the second season, not by winning the regular season Presidents' Trophy for most points.  Because really, who cares?  I've never figured out why hockey awards a trophy to the team that leads in points at the end of the regular season. It's meaningless.  Teams in the NFL, NBA or MLB don't give out trophies for being 1st in the league at the end of their regular seasons because winning the championship is the only thing that matters.

So, I'm glad the Caps didn't win the Presidents' Trophy this year.  I'm also proud of them for coming in 2nd place in the league after surviving a grueling 8 game losing streak earlier this season.  That's when Coach Boudreau finally decided to make this team play defense.  Hopefully, it'll make a difference this post season.

Even though I'm proud of the Caps for coming in first in the East, it means they get to play the number eight seed again and that turned into a disaster last year. The Caps lost to a harder working number eight seed, the Montreal Canadiens.  This playoffs, they get to play a hard working New York Rangers team.  The Rangers shellacked the Caps this season with 7 and 6 goal shutouts.  Gee, is it any wonder that I'm uneasy?

The games with the Rangers and Caps seem to come down to two things - Henrik Lundqvist in net and blocked shots.  Blocked shots are a good indicator of a hard working team that sacrifices their bodies.  In terms of goaltending, Lundqvist is a far more accomplished goal tender than either Michal Neuvirth or Semyon Valamov and he's capable of stealing games and a playoff series.  To solve Lundqvist, the Caps have to crash the net and get dirty goals early.  It's no coincidence that the goals scored on him tend to be garbage goals from close-in.  In the Caps early season 5-3 win over the Rangers, Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble and Matt Hendricks all scored on him from 13 ft in or closer.  Those three forwards generate a lot of garbage goals.  John Erskine scored a 44 ft slap shot and Brooksie got an empty netter in that game.

As for blocked shots, the Caps need to work as hard as the Rangers.  The blocked shot differential in their four meetings this season is telling.  The Rangers blocked 73 shots while the Caps blocked 32.  Ouch. In the November game where the Caps won 5-3, ten Ranger players blocked shots led by Ryan Callahan with 5 (he's out for the season) while six Caps players blocked shots with Jeff Schultz leading with 2.  In the December 0-7 debacle, eight Rangers blocked shots led by Brian Boyle with 7 while five Caps blocked shots with Karl Alzner leading with 2. In the January 1-2 SO loss, nine Ranger players blocked shots, led by blue liners Marc Staal and Michael Sauer with 4 each, compared to the Caps five players led by blue liner John Carlson with 4. In the final game between these two teams, eight Rangers blocked shots with Brian Boyle again leading the way with 5 while six Caps player blocked shots and Nicklas Backstrom led with 3.  The Ranger commitment to team defense shows here and the Caps have to match that intensity.

All of the games against the Rangers happened before the trade deadline additions of Jason ArnottDennis Wideman (unfortunately, out for this series) and Marco Sturm.  Arnott is the most important addition of those three because he's provided much needed veteran leadership in the Caps locker room.  The Caps listen to him because he's been there, done that and won a Cup.  A Cup victory where Arnott scored the game winning goal in overtime.  He knows how to win the Cup and he will not let the Caps get away with slacking off.  The Caps have only lost 4 games in regulation of the 19 games they played since the trade deadline.

So, the only prediction about this series I'll make is this, if the Caps want to win this series, they will.

The fun starts Wednesday.

Let's go Caps!

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