Habs Fever - Habs could surprise Caps
Published Monday, April 12, 2010 10:33AM EDT
You're probably thinking the next fourteen days for Montreal hockey fans are going to be a capital write-off.
It's the best team in the entire thirty-team league against the worst team to make the playoffs. A team with only 24 wins in regulation this season against a team with almost double that. The highest scoring team in the league against the second-lowest scoring team among playoff teams ahead of only Boston. It is on paper a mismatch so extraordinary that the Habs might as well just lay down their sticks before it even begins.
You are going to hear that refrain confidently echoed throughout the streets of Montreal and all over Canada.
I am here to tell you right now that those who are screaming that notion are not paying attention to how these two teams match up.
Canadiens did well in regular season
Firstly, the head-to-head this season, while no means completely indicative of how the series may go, is an indicator that the Habs will head in with more confidence than you think. The Habs won two games, they lost one in regulation and they lost one in overtime. One of the wins was in overtime - a wild 6-5 affair, their freshest memory of each other last month. Total goals scored by each team head-to-head was 14. Based on the regular season that doesn't sound like an easy four-game sweep, a prediction you will hear a thousand times until puck drop Thursday.
I am by no means suggesting a series upset. I am suggesting don't look so intensely at the standings and the roster and decide that this will be a Capital stroll.
The Capitals, for all their stars play a high-risk game, a dangerous game of traded chances and reliance on offensive firepower. Two hockey men have pointed this out recently. R.J. Umberger flatly predicted the Caps would be a big playoff disappointment because of their dangerous play and defensive difficulties. When asked by the media why Caps defenceman and Norris Trophy favourite Mike Green wasn't selected for Canada's Olympic team, Steve Yzerman said because he is too high-risk of a player. Yzerman was right. He is high-risk and he's on the highest-risk team in the league. The Olympics showed an experienced man like Yzerman knows that you cannot afford mistakes. Chances take care of themselves. Mistakes will kill you. If you are trading them, you improve the odds of the poorer team.
The league would love the Caps to do well. The excitement they bring is good for the game. However, exciting teams have a hard time winning titles. Sadly, hockey probably more than any other sport, is a defence-first endeavour. Look through history and you will see the 1 vs. 8 match ups that led to upsets were offensive juggernauts hanging their goalie out to dry while they themselves were stymied by a hot goalie.
Exciting teams don't produce consistent hockey
I remember well from my youth in Edmonton one of the greatest first-round upsets in history. The Oilers were beaten in seven by the Los Angeles Kings, who were given no chance. In one game the Kings, in the game dubbed the Miracle on Manchester, came back from a 5-0 deficit to win in overtime. They won the series in Edmonton with the Oilers seeming to have no idea how to play defence. The Capitals remind me of that Oiler team who had to learn how to win by playing a tight defensive style. In fact, the moment the Oilers greats of the 80s knew they were on the way to the cup was when a couple years later they won on Long Island in game one of the final against the defending champions by a score of 1-0. It was an accomplishment not imaginable two years earlier. If you compare those Oilers to the high-scoring Capitals, where do you think the Caps are in their progression of what it takes to win a title? I will answer far away still.
I am not predicting a Habs series win. I am predicting the Caps get a bit of a scare and the Habs won't feel ashamed or overmatched when it is done.
I am also predicting that when the Caps face another upper echelon team they will get their comeuppance. The Lemaire-led Devils will dispose of them without too much alarm. The Pens will also oust the Caps in a long series should they meet. Those three teams stand above the fray in the East, and of the three it is the Caps who are most susceptible to being upset.
Bring on the playoffs
So let's bring on the playoffs. If Jacques Martin can put some playoff fire in Hab hearts, they could make it a lot more interesting than what you are going to hear predicted by experts and your cab driver.
Martin used a surprising style to beat the Caps in the regular season. His players were happy to play a wide-open game with Washington. The players said to just sit back, respect their offense, and wait for them to come at us was a mistake. So the Habs tried to establish a forecheck and play a fast transition game. Both of those tactics would expose the Caps weaknesses and they did. Montreal had regular season success because of some excellent contrarian thinking from the head coach.
Enjoy the series. I think it is going to be better than you are expecting.