Washington Capitals Quest Begins!

April 15, 2010

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Thursday, April 15th (All times eastern)

(8) Montreal Canadiens (0-0) at (1) Washington Capitals (0-0), 7 p.m.

(Sports Network) – The NHL’s best team during the regular season will begin its chase for the Stanley Cup when the Washington Capitals host the Montreal Canadiens tonight at Verizon Center for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals.

The top-seeded Capitals set franchise records in points (121) and wins (54) and, by earning the club’s first Presidents’ Trophy, Washington assured itself of home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs.

“We’ve known for a long time that we were going to be in the playoffs,” said Caps head coach Bruce Boudreau after Washington’s final game of the regular season. “As much as you want to push them, they are looking forward to a different kind of challenge. For that I am happy that the regular season is over.”

But the Caps have learned in recent years, winning in the playoffs is much different than racking up victories in October and November. Two years ago, Washington made the playoffs for the first time since the spring of 2003 and was bounced out in the first round by Philadelphia. Last season, the Capitals beat the New York Rangers in seven games during the Eastern Conference quarterfinals only to lose in seven to Pittsburgh in the semis.

The Capitals were easily the best offensive team in the NHL during the regular season, scoring 318 goals — 46 more than the next club on the list, the Vancouver Canucks.

Of course, Washington’s prolific scoring attack begins with superstar winger Alex Ovechkin, but unlike a few years ago, it doesn’t end there. As if it wasn’t enough that the Capitals have the best offensive player in the league, Washington also boasts the NHL’s top-scoring defenseman in Mike Green.

Only four players reached 100 points in the NHL this season and the Capitals had two of them in Ovechkin and fellow forward Nicklas Backstrom, who recorded 101 points while centering No. 8 on Washington’s top line.

All told, Washington had seven players with 20 or more goals this year and Green nearly made it eight with his league-leading 19 markers from the blue line. Green suffered a hefty drop-off in goals from 2008-09 when he potted 31 tallies, but he actually went up in points, scoring 76 this year compared to 73 a season ago.

However, the biggest question mark for Washington is once again its goaltending. Jose Theodore heads into the postseason as the club’s starter, but that doesn’t mean much after last spring. Theodore was also was the team’s presumptive No. 1 at this time last year and only wound up starting one of the team’s 14 playoff games as head coach Bruce Boudreau made the quick switch to then rookie Semyon Varlamov.

Theodore was 30-7-7 with a .911 save percentage and a 2.81 goals against average during the 2009-10 regular season and beat out Varlamov for the postseason job with his strong play down the stretch.

Theodore, who won the Hart and Vezina Trophies in 2001-02 while playing for the Canadiens, could be the key for the Capitals in this playoff matchup. He has not fared well in just four career games against his former team, going 2-1-1 with a lofty 4.05 GAA and .877 save percentage.

Theodore suffered a stinger after getting hit with a puck in practice this week, but he is still expected to start Game 1. Backstrom was also hampered by an undisclosed illness this week, but is also probable for tonight.

While the Capitals had wrapped up the Southeast Division race and a trip to the playoffs weeks before the regular season ended, Montreal waited until its final regular-season game to punch its ticket to the postseason.

The Canadiens earned the right to play in this series by gaining the final point it needed in an overtime loss to Toronto on the last Saturday of the regular season. It was not an impressive way to enter the playoffs for a team that went just 3-4-4 over its final 11 games.

Like last year, the Canadiens are the eighth and last seed in the East, although they needed 93 points to claim that distinction in 2008-09 and 88 points to do so this season. Montreal hopes to put forth a better effort this spring after getting swept by Boston in the quarterfinals last season.

The 2009-10 version of the Habs is a sounder team on defense, but not as explosive on offense. The team also has a new No. 1 goaltender for this postseason with Jaroslav Halak replacing Carey Price, who compiled a 5-10 record and a dismal 3.11 GAA in starting 15 playoff games for Montreal over the past two seasons. However, Halak, who was named the NHL’s first star of the week recently, has played just 20 minutes of playoff hockey in his brief career and has never started a postseason game.

Still, going with Halak as the starter is an easy decision for head coach Jacques Martin. Halak was 26-13-5 with a 2.40 GAA and a .924 save percentage this year compared to Price, who was just 13-20-5 with a 2.77 GAA and a .912 save percentage.

Montreal is still led by Andrei Markov and Roman Hamrlik on defense, but an active free agency period last summer has altered the Habs’ offensive attack.

The Canadiens then brought in four new players on the first day of free agency. Two of those new additions, Mike Cammalleri and Brian Gionta, joined Scott Gomez, who was acquired in a trade with the New York Rangers, to form Montreal’s new offensive core. In order to make room for the new boys, general manager Bob Gainey said goodbye to fan favorites Alex Kovalev and Saku Koivu, marking a changing of the guard.

The Habs and Caps have never faced in the postseason before, but played a very tight season series this year. Each team won two games and only one of the four tilts was decided by more than one goal — a 4-2 win by Washington on Jan. 5.

Game 2 of this series is set for Saturday night in D.C., while the Habs will host the third game on Monday.

Washington was 30-5-6 at Verizon Center this year. The Canadiens were 19-17-5 in road games.


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