Saturday, April 17, 2010

Habs Vs. Caps

Beware The Comeback Kids

The Montreal Canadiens won an important game the other nigt in the lion's den, an arena where the Capitals had secured 30 wins on the season to go with 6 OTL (that's 66 of 82 pts). But as much as Habs fans don't want to hear it, it was only a game. Montreal beat Washington once in the regular season in DC as well, but that didn't prevent them from limiting their remaining losses to four.

The Washington Capitals of 2009-10 are one of the strongest teams to play in the Eastern Conference in some time. They didn't get lucky in all departments a la Boston Bruins 08-09 or squeak out a paltry 104 points to win the conference as the Habs did a year earlier. They won all those games despite their faults. They won all those games because their strengths can, if allowed to, truly overwhelm.

Comeback potential

Among all their talents, one of the most dangerous for the Capitals this season has been their ability to come back. Though resilience is a feature that endows all top teams through the years, the striking thing about these Caps is the degree to which they outshone their rivals in returning from deficit.

There are a few teams that managed to score first nearly as often as Washington (52 times), but all suffered massive loss of points when this occurred. Consider Washington's 8 regulation losses from 30 games in which the opponents grabbed a lead vs. Calgary's 21 losses from 32 or Philly's 25 losses from 33.

Where scoring first is a good omen for winning (only Florida allowed a sub-500 record from first goal scored positions), coming back from the opposite position really seems to separate the wheat from the chaff. Washington stands atop those teams, out-distancing San Jose this year by a healthy 7% and are the only team to be above true 0.500 (16W, 14L).

This second look at the comeback capability of the Washington Capitals is also telling. The 22 games in which they trailed after 2 periods ended in comebacks for at least a point on more than 50% of occasions (12/22 games). The Montreal Canadiens, who we've been calling battlers at times, or plucky, have only managed 8 true come backs from 33 opportunities. The Pittsburgh Penguins with their much vaunted captain only managed to climb back 10 times from 33 opportunities.

Games vs. the Habs alone

Even a limited sample, such as games against Montreal is enough to serve notice of this resilient tendency of the Washington opponent.

In Game 1 in Washington, the Habs had a lead going into the third and extended it midway through the period. The Caps scored late to make it a one goaler and only Price holding off the next 4 shots prevented OT.

Game 2 in Montreal was even more dramatic. The Habs are the team that mounted the initial comeback to lead from the 6th minute of period 3. Washington, undying as usual, pressed on, tied the game with 12 seconds left and won it on a shootout goal.

Game 3 in Washington was more of a wash, but the return game in Montreal again served warning of the offensive potential to undo mistakes. Lead after lead was clawed back, to the point that a 3-goal lead heading into the thrid period was negated from a Mike Green effort and 2 from Brooks Laich. Montreal won in OT for another critical point, but Washington were no pushover.

Lessons for the Montreal Canadiens

The Capitals are true standouts in this regard, and it speaks to their skill, their plan and most of all their attitude to games.

The playoff series is not unlike a game. As in games, the first strike does on average predict the likely victor. What the Canadiens must consider here, though, is that they are not playing an average opponent. They are not playing the New York Rangers (for whom 3rd period play is merely formality). No, the Capitals won't be down in the dumps over a series deficit because they don't look at deficits the same way that you or I do. For them, a goal against early is merely a bell to alert them to score one extra. A loss early will only serve the same purpose.

The main lesson I would stress from these numbers is that the Capitals must never be counted out. Never. Our team's experience alone must be enough to stress this, but to know they did it to everyone else (and probably to Florida every time) makes it even more resonant.

The way forward

I don't mean this piece to be a downer. I am thrilled the Montreal won this game. One game is one in the bank towards the four they seek. It's not meaningless. I intend as usual to merely level the ship. Expectations as to the outcome in this series haven't changed much for me with the win. I thought Montreal would win games in this series and like the chances of an upset. The order of the wins, however, is meaningless

For fans the way forward is to enjoy the improved play of our team. The way they played in the 60 minutes that counted (the last 60 minutes of game 1) was a revelation compared to recent outings. The way players adhered to a plan for the distance was encouraging. Positive too were the repeated incursions in to the Washington zone. Getting carried away can wait until after win #4.

For the team, I think the way forward has to be quick-thinking adaptation and shifting strategy. Double teaming Ovechkin was the right plan for a game, but teams don't post 121 points with so many from comeback efforts if they are so easily disarmed. The coaches must expect a change of strategy from their opponent.

I think Martin needs not only to be able to allow flexibility when Ovechkin shows up on longer and longer shifts, on different lines, or when Semin is placed with Backstrom and Knuble, but also to anticipate what a coach like Boudreau might do.

The first strike has landed. This series just got very interesting.

Go Habs Go.

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