By Tarik El-Bashir
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
The intensity rises. The pace is faster. The hits are harder.
Playoff hockey was something unfamiliar to the majority of the Washington Capitals a year ago, and by the time the youthful lineup adjusted, the Philadelphia Flyers were leading the first-round series, 3-1.
"We didn't quite know what to expect," Coach Bruce Boudreau said. "Last year, 90 percent of our players had no idea what playoff hockey was about. It was like shock value. This year, we know how ramped up it is. It's a lot higher than we thought."
As heartbreaking as that seven-game, first-round exit was for the organization and its fans, it was a necessary step in the Capitals' evolution, a painful lesson Boudreau hopes has prepared Alex Ovechkin and his teammates for the exponentially higher expectations they'll face when the postseason begins tonight against the New York Rangers.
During practice yesterday, Boudreau's voice conveyed a sense of urgency. The players' eyes were focused. Drills were executed with passion, and more important, precision. Last season, the Capitals hoped to advance. This season, they expect to, a sentiment underscored by the team's businesslike approach to their final tuneup.
"This is it," Ovechkin said. "You give everything you have on the ice. It doesn't matter [if it's] first period, first shift, second shift. You just give everything."
But effort alone won't be enough against Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers. These four keys to the series figure to be equally as important:
-- Making Lundqvist's job difficult. The three-time Vezina Trophy finalist won a career-high 38 games to go along with a .916 save percentage and 2.43 goals against average. He excels under pressure, but even elite goaltenders struggle when they don't get a clear view of the shooter. Therefore, it's absolutely critical that the Capitals create traffic in front -- something that's been easier said than done this season.
"You look at our last 10 games, even though it was against inferior opponents, we've scored some goals because we've done that," Boudreau said.
Lundqvist was 1-1-1 against the Capitals during the regular season, yielding 11 goals on 93 shots (88.2 save percentage).
-- Minimizing Sean Avery's impact. Plucked off waivers by the Rangers in March following a six-game suspension for his now-infamous comments in Calgary, Avery is hockey's best pest. Whether he's waving his stick in the face of New Jersey goalie Martin Brodeur or whacking Boston goalie Tim Thomas on the back of the helmet with his stick during a television timeout, Avery has a way of distracting his opponents.
"Obviously, he does a good job at what he does best, which is to disturb and cause some guys to lose their focus," Capitals goalie José Theodore said. "For me, there are so many guys I have to watch on that team, he's just one of them."
-- Washington's second-ranked power play vs. New York's top-ranked penalty kill. At 25.2 percent, the Capitals' power play is arguably the league's most talented, with Ovechkin and Mike Green on the points and Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich up front. But that unit could meet its match against the Rangers, who killed off 87.8 percent of the short-handed situations they faced.
The Capitals' power play is dangerous because its boasts so many weapons and is adept at scoring in some many ways. The Rangers' penalty kill is effective for a similar season: Coach John Tortorella relies on up to 10 players to kill penalties. And they're all willing to throw themselves in front of a shot.
"We have to move the puck because they are very aggressive on the half wall and up top," Laich said. "When we do get opportunities, we have to attack the net and take away the goalies' eyes."
-- Cranking it back up. With a playoff berth all but ensured down the stretch, the Capitals occasionally struggled to find their motivation and maintain a high level of focus, particularly against lesser opponents. In fact, seven of their final 11 losses were to teams that did not make the playoffs, raising concerns that they may have trouble "flipping the switch."
For a year, the Capitals have waited for a chance to redeem themselves from last spring's letdown against the Flyers. That waiting is finally over.
"The bar is raised," Boudreau said. "We know how difficult it is. We're not saying we're not going to achieve our ultimate goal, but we're going to try."
Capitals Notes: Defenseman Tom Poti (groin muscle strain) practiced again but remains questionable for tonight. "It is the playoffs, though," Poti said. "That helps me lean one way." . . .
Rangers captain Chris Drury returned to practice after missing four days with an undisclosed injury.