By Jason La Canfora
Wednesday, April 16, 2008
The most drastic change Washington Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau could devise in response to his club's lackluster performance thus far in the playoffs would be to bench once-unbeatable goalie Cristobal Huet in place of playoff veteran Olie Kolzig.
It would be bold and brazen, with the potential to prove profound, but it won't happen. The rookie head coach said he never entertained the thought of changing goalies during Tuesday night's convincing 6-3 loss to the Philadelphia Flyers at Wachovia Center, and Huet will be back in net here for a critical Game 4 on Thursday. The Capitals, playing almost all game with just five defensemen after Jeff Schultz aggravated his "upper-body" injury, trail this best-of-seven first-round series two games to one after being outplayed for all but one amazing 18-minute stretch of Game 1.
Turning the team over to Kolzig can't ease the frustrations of slumping superstar Alex Ovechkin, who is wilting amid the constant pressure and physical play of the Flyers' defense, or eliminate the defensive breakdowns and silly retaliatory penalties born of Washington's youth. It can't prod finesse forwards to shun the fancy play in favor of a simple dump-and-chase sequence or add bite to a suddenly foundering power play.
But a change in net can alter a team's identity, foster a rebirth of sorts and give an opponent a new wrinkle to consider, with no position being more important or influential this time of year. It's much too late to finally add that pounding, hulking defenseman long missing to punish forwards around the crease (impish Flyers forward Daniel Brière, of all people, is wreaking havoc in such high traffic areas), but the right goalie in the right moment can steal a game or sway a series, overcoming a discrepancy in personnel.
Kolzig, though pondering retirement at age 38, is only a few months removed from being the face of the franchise (before Huet's trade-deadline arrival), and with his hyper-competitive nature, he has a history of carrying teams for weeks on end. Kolzig's superior size and strength would serve him well with the Flyers intent on crashing the net -- they have given Huet fits at times -- and his goals against average of 2.14 and save percentage of .927 in 45 playoff games are beyond reproach.
In this series, Huet has never looked the part of the goalie who won nine straight starts to catapult the Capitals into the playoffs. He has allowed 11 goals already in this series (one goal Tuesday night was scored into an empty net) after yielding just 14 during that nine-game stretch. The veil of impenetrability has been lifted.
On this night, Huet was again victimized by Brière low to the stick side, an area the Flyers identified as vulnerable in Game 1, and the Capitals never led.
"I'm going to have to make some key saves at the beginning of games if we're going to have a better shot," Huet said.
The Capitals tied the score when the fourth line -- their only consistent unit in this series -- netted another gritty goal, but 65 seconds later Scott Hartnell beat a screened Huet with a one-timer. Seventeen seconds after that, defenseman Milan Jurcina -- on the ice for all three of Philadelphia's first-period goals and a candidate to be scratched for Game 4 -- made a horrendous blunder from behind his net.
Attempting to pass the puck down the middle was egregious enough, but Jurcina muffed his delivery, just about giving the Flyers a 3-1 lead just before intermission.
"It's very frustrating," Huet said. "I felt really good, but the end results look bad for me."
For five months, virtually all of Boudreau's machinations -- as minor as when to cancel practice to as significant as when to bench a slumping player -- were sage. But the playoffs are a different animal, when the rigors of facing the same opponent night after night can magnify every weakness and bring new fissures to light, and best aligning your personnel to attack the opposition is paramount.
While Jurcina struggles, former first-round pick Steve Eminger, a mainstay in both Boudreau's and former coach Glen Hanlon's doghouses, sits, despite being a smooth skater if nothing else. The team was 15-5-1 with Eminger in the lineup this season (including Game 1, which Schultz missed).
And while the Flyers feasted on the miscues of defensemen such as Jurcina and John Erskine, Ovechkin has appeared lost, bottled up by Philadelphia's top pair of defenders (Braydon Coburn and Kimmo Timonen, who left and did not return with an upper-body injury). Ovechkin's one moment of brilliance, the winning tally in Game 1, came on the rare shift not against that duo. Boudreau has played down the impact of Philadelphia's matchup on Ovechkin, but no one can deny that the 65-goal scorer has been languishing amid a torrent of contact.
"It's up to those guys to battle through it," Boudreau said. "There's nothing you can say magically. Just go out there and play hard and fight through this stuff. You can see some of them getting frustrated, Alex probably in particular."
Double-shifting Ovechkin with the fourth line -- usually paired against modest defenders -- might help ignite him, however, and forcing him to take 45-second shifts is in order, too. Adding a net presence such as Brooks Laich to the top power-play unit makes sense as well, with a series close to slipping away, and a season suddenly in the balance.