Capitals Face Crucial Test on Defense

The Capitals and Penguins boast dueling superstars in Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and have split their last eight regular-season games, but where it counts -- in the postseason -- Pittsburgh has prevailed seven of eight times.
By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, May 2, 2009

When Dan Bylsma, the coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins, watched the Washington Capitals close out the New York Rangers in the seventh game of their first-round playoff series, he noticed the defensive stats. The Capitals allowed the Rangers a single shot in the third and decisive period. They allowed them only 15 shots for the entire game, remarkable given the stakes.

"They did that against New York when the chips were on the line," Bylsma said yesterday, "and I expect that they're going to be ready to do that against us, make it hard on us."

For the Capitals' defensive unit, the reality of the situation, though, is this: The Pittsburgh team the Capitals face in the Eastern Conference semifinals -- which begin this afternoon at Verizon Center -- is about as similar to the Rangers as ice hockey is to curling. Instantly, the Capitals will go from facing a team that prefers a pace in which a broom might be necessary to sweep in front of the puck to one of the most dynamic and exciting units in all of hockey.

Consider the differences: The Rangers were third-to-last in the league in goal-scoring in the regular season; Pittsburgh ranked sixth. The Ranger who produced the most points during the regular season was center Nik Antropov, who amassed 59; in Evgeni Malkin (113 points) and Sidney Crosby (103), the Penguins have two of the top three point producers in the NHL.

The Capitals' defense is coming off what was, statistically, its best seven-game stretch of the season, one in which it allowed 11 goals, posted two shutouts and held the Rangers to 23.7 shots per game -- best among any of the 16 teams in the first round of the playoffs. That kind of shut-down performance almost certainly can't happen against the Penguins. Capitals Coach Bruce Boudreau ticked off the names of the Rangers' best scorers yesterday: Scott Gomez, Chris Drury and Brandon Dubinsky, saying they're "great players.

"But they're not Crosby, Malkin, [Jordan] Staal, [Petr] Sykora, [Chris] Kunitz, [Bill] Guerin," Boudreau said. "So the firepower is quite [a bit] more, and they didn't have [Sergei] Gonchar on defense. We have to be way more aware, and we can't leave them open nets like we did in the last series that didn't get put in, because these guys will put them in for sure."

The Capitals simply aren't known for their defense, though Boudreau praised the unit repeatedly throughout the series against the Rangers. For his part, Bylsma was diplomatic yesterday. He knows the strength of the two teams is the same: enormous skill. Bylsma said Washington's defense, though, can play physically, both in the corners and in the open ice, as the Rangers' series showed.

"There are things that they do well," Bylsma said. "They have strengths. If you're only content to play on the outside, and you're not content to work and support the puck, then you're going to have a very difficult time against this defense."

The group -- which, for now, consists of Mike Green, Shaone Morrisonn, Brian Pothier, Tom Poti, Milan Jurcina and John Erskine, with Jeff Schultz still battling an injury -- has improved over the course of the season, coaches and players said. And the opponent, given the skill of Crosby and Malkin in particular, has the players thinking they may have to change things a bit. Green, for instance, established himself as a star this season by scoring 31 goals, most among NHL defensemen. He said, though, not to necessarily expect that kind of output against the Penguins.

"For myself, to always be up in the play and getting caught is not worth it," Green said. "We have forwards that are skilled enough to score."

But the defensemen said the forwards, too, must contribute to their cause. Given the chance, any of the Penguins' top three centers -- Crosby, Malkin or Staal -- can move the puck swiftly through the neutral zone, much more aggressively than the Rangers did. If the Capitals' forwards are sloppy -- and several players said they were late in the regular season -- the Penguins will almost certainly capitalize.

"Obviously, the six guys are labeled as defensemen," said Pothier, who has worked his way back from concussions that cost him most of the past two seasons. "But I think the last month of the regular season, as a team, we weren't very committed to [defense]. Whether it's the fact that we were already in the playoffs, we weren't really focused -- whatever it might have been, we weren't really clicking.

"And then, as soon as we got to the playoff series, we still turned the puck over a lot, but [the forwards] made a ton of improvements, and it made life on the defensemen a lot easier, to be honest. . . . When the forwards are good, we're a lot better."

Boudreau, basically, agrees with that assessment. "It's got to be a five-man thing," he said, "and we can't have too many guys not understanding their roles." But he is also cognizant of how the Capitals won the Southeast Division during the regular season, how they earned the second seed in the playoffs and therefore home-ice advantage in this series: They scored goals. So Boudreau is not about to tell Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin to become grinding, checking forwards.

"We're more concerned with focusing on what we do well," Boudreau said.

During the regular season, that worked. In going 3-0-1 against Pittsburgh, the Capitals allowed the Penguins three goals a game -- slightly less than their average of 3.15 -- and limited them to 27.5 shots per game, just off their average of 29.

"Obviously, we know there's room for improvement," Poti said. "We feel good, but we know we can be better. As each round goes along, you have to elevate your game a little bit. . . . With their forwards, it's going to be a whole different series."

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