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Capitals use their deep roster to take 3-1 series lead against Canadiens in NHL playoffs

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By Barry Svrluga
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 23, 2010

The highlights from the Washington Capitals' victory in the fourth game of their opening-round playoff series against Montreal focused, understandably, on the marquee performers. Alex Ovechkin scored two goals, Nicklas Backstrom shot one into an empty net and added a pair of assists, and goaltender Semyon Varlamov kept the team afloat during an abysmal second period by making save after save.

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But the play that turned the night came toward the end of that sorry second period, when the Canadiens were on the power play and a 26-year-old forward who has never scored more than seven goals in an NHL season corralled the puck, raced down the ice and found a streaking Mike Knuble for a short-handed goal that simultaneously tied the game and turned the tide.

Thus, Boyd Gordon became a hero for the second straight game -- he scored a short-handed goal himself in Monday's Game 3 -- and simultaneously demonstrated what's fundamentally different about these Capitals and the versions that came before them: They are deep enough that Gordon, such a pivotal player at this point in the series, did not dress for Game 2. Such is the nature of Coach Bruce Boudreau's decisions from game to game, including heading into a potentially series-clinching Game 5 Friday night at Verizon Center. Deciding to play one player means sitting another potentially pivotal piece.

"Over the course of a series," Boudreau said, "we can always have guys that can be put in -- and you're not missing a beat."

That was not true during the past two postseasons, and it has taken some time to get to such a position. General Manager George McPhee, who wanted to maintain team chemistry, carefully considered the type of player to add during the middle of this season, one in which Washington had a lock on its division nearly from the start. He acquired veteran left wing Jason Chimera from Columbus in late December and added center Eric Belanger from Minnesota along with Scott Walker and defenseman Joe Corvo from Carolina at the March 3 trade deadline.

"I thought they were such smart moves, exactly what we needed," center Brendan Morrison said before the series started. And this comes from a player who, in part because of Belanger's arrival, sat out the first game of the playoffs.

Consider what these characters, and the other bit players at the back end of Washington's lineup, have contributed. Through Wednesday's games, Belanger led all playoff participants in faceoff percentage, winning 70.8 percent of his 72 draws. Chimera followed Ovechkin's tiebreaking goal Wednesday night with one of his own, a goal created by fourth-line forward Matt Bradley's grinding work behind the net. The acquisition of Corvo has given Boudreau another offensively gifted defenseman who can spell Mike Green on the power play, and Corvo has a goal and an assist against Montreal. And though Walker, who battled injuries late in the season, hasn't yet appeared in the playoffs, "He's going to get a chance," Boudreau said Thursday.

Last year, when the Capitals accumulated nagging injuries over the course of two grueling seven-game playoff series against the New York Rangers and Pittsburgh, they had to turn to their minor league affiliate in Hershey, Pa., for replacements. Thus, forward Jay Beagle -- who had, at that point, three games of NHL experience -- played four times in the playoffs. Now, if an injury pops up, Boudreau will almost certainly be able to draw from his own dressing room.

"No disrespect to any of the Hershey guys," Boudreau said, "but you got guys that are acclimated to your system totally, and they're vested in what's going on in the series and everything, and so they come in and there's no real level [of] difference. It's really tough to get that, and I think we're fortunate."

It can, though, create difficult decisions for Boudreau. Center David Steckel played a career-high 79 games for the Capitals during the season, when he was a constant on the fourth line and as a penalty killer, the main man to take faceoffs when Washington was short-handed. He was also a hero of last year's playoffs, because he scored the overtime game-winner that forced a seventh game against the Penguins.

But after the first two games of this series -- when the small, quick Canadiens had won once and pushed the Capitals to overtime twice -- Boudreau thought through his lineup. Gordon is right-handed, perhaps a better way to counter a Montreal team dominated by left-handers. Gordon is also smaller than the 6-foot-5 Steckel, but is quicker, too. Could Boudreau afford to fine-tune his lineup and sit Steckel for Gordon?

He did.

"It was a choice," Boudreau said. "And I told him I thought Boyd was a little quicker than him, and we're playing a very fast team, so it just made a little bit of sense. . . . It had nothing to do with Dave's play."

Thus, even though Gordon has excelled, Boudreau said Steckel has been assured he will return -- at some point. "His season's not over," Boudreau said. But when he comes back, someone else must sit. It is a luxury for the coach and, potentially, a difficult situation for the players.

"It's definitely not easy," forward Eric Fehr said. "Nobody wants to sit. We all have a lot of pride. We want to play. We want to help our team win. But at the same time, we realize we've got a lot of skill on this team, and we got to rely on the coach's decision on who he's going to put in."

Boudreau, too, was concerned about type of player that was added to his locker room through trades. He has been pleased, though, because the additions -- whether they have played or sat -- have not questioned the approach. The Capitals have 26 players on their roster, including injured defenseman Milan Jurcina. And by the end of this playoff run -- whenever that is -- it's possible all of them will have contributed.

"Our guys have been tremendous," Boudreau said. "They all want to play, a burning desire to play, but I think they know when you're winning there's not a lot of lineup changes."

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