As the Capitals and Canadiens prepare to do postseason battle for the first time ever, there are plenty of tried and true storylines getting tossed around - the top two power plays in the League going head to head, Ovechkin in a hockey mecca, the return of Theodore to Montreal, etc.
After the jump, a quick and dirty guide to some of the head-to-head match-ups we'll be seeing come Thursday night.
Best Montreal Penalty Killer vs Best Washington Power Play Specialist
With just over three minutes of shorthanded time per game, Josh Gorges is one of the most utilized penalty killers on the Montreal roster. He leads his team in power play goals against, but his GAON/60 at 4-on-5 is relatively low considering how much shorthanded time he gets - and the quality of competition he's facing.
When he comes up against the Caps, he'll be facing the best. And while Mike Green is the quarterback on the blueline and Alex Ovechkin is the engine, Nicklas Backstrom is far and away the brains of the power play. His ability to find his teammates anywhere on the ice has led him to create some of the best power play goals of the season, and he's racked up the highest points per 60 power play minutes on the team. The fact that he's started to shoot more just adds another facet of awesomeness to his power play game.
Presumptive Starting Goaltenders
Bruce Boudreau can play coy all he wants, there's almost no way Jose Theodore's not between the pipes for Game 1 of this series. And thank goodness, as Theodore finished the season on a high note, going 23 straight games without losing in regulation (20-0-3 over that stretch) and setting a franchise record in the process. Questions of his consistency will always remain until he proves otherwise in the postseason, but the bigger story with Theo is his return to Montreal - a city that has not been kind to its native son.
At the other end of the rink, the goaltending carousel continues and the latest favored son, fair or not, is Jaroslav Halak. Halak's kind of a mixed bag. He's capable of putting up back-to-back shutouts and turning aside 40, 45, 50 shots a night to steal a game, doing so on a regular basis in the NHL and routinely facing high shot totals at the Olympics. At the same time he's equally capable of putting up back-to-back stinkers, as was the case in the last three games of the regular season. If Montreal is to have any shot against a potent Washington offense, it lies in the hands of Jaroslav Halak. Um...no, pressure?
Here in Washington we often talk about the lack of coverage and/or respect given to the Caps by the local media; at times Montreal players probably wish they had that luxury. When the team is winning, they're beloved and the media treats them as such; when they're not, though, watch out.
At times it's just reporters casting harsh - and sometimes well-deserved - criticism on the team, but other times it dips into tabloid-level journalism, as scandalous pictures mysteriously emerge, tales of mob-related mayhem are uncovered, and locker room unrest is "revealed". Add in the Francophone vs. Anglophone factor, as two sets of outlets try to outdo and critique one another, and it gets even crazier. All in a day's work for the Montreal media.
Of course, we all know by now that the best place for information and entertainment is not the mainstream media but the ever-increasing world of blogs and fan-created content. The Habs are certainly not lacking in this department. For Canadiens history and know-how, Eyes on the Prize and All Habs are the go-to sites; and if you want the Montreal of the blogosphere - i.e. funny, crass and filled with half-clothed women - be sure to check out Four Habs Fans.
As for your Caps content...please, you're lookin' at it! (Or, you know, the other eleventy billion awesome sites floating around.)
Montreal's Best Defenseman vs Washington's Best Forward
One of the more intriguing match-ups going into this series will be Alex Ovechkin against his countryman on the blueline, Andrei Markov. Markov is often referred to by Ovechkin as one of the toughest D he faces, and there's no question he's the best defenseman Montreal has - he and Ovechkin will get to know each other even better over the course of this series, for sure. If you believe that as Ovechkin goes, so goes the team, Markov could end up being one of the most important players for the Habs in this series.
Part of what makes this series so interesting is that the odds of seeing all four goaltenders in this series are probably higher than in any other first round match-up. Neither has completely settled on a solid #1, although both have their clear frontrunners, and the potential wheel o' goaltenders is something to keep an eye on.
For the Habs, Carey Price has been the (often unfairly) maligned goaltender of note and more importantly, has been the guy in net in each of the four games between these two teams during the regular season. The fans and media alike have turned on him this year but should Halak go cold - or remain cold - Montreal will have no other option but to turn to Carey. Considering how well he performed in those four games against the Caps, that's not necessarily good news for Washington.
Meanwhile, we all know how quick Boudreau is to use the hook on Theodore in the playoffs, although Jose's undoubtedly earned himself a slightly longer leash this year. Still, there's no guarantee that the playoff savior from last year, Semyon Varlamov, won't find himself suiting up for the Caps at some point. Varlamov is steadily climbing back into top shape after a long injury and rehab process, and after sitting out for so many games will likely not have the same problems with fatigue this year.
Montreal's Best Forward vs Washington's Best Defenseman
Mike Green has steadily become one of the Caps' most reliable defensemen since the Olympic Break, focusing more on his play in the defensive zone while still managing to rack up points. He's playing smart, savvy hockey, with a dash of physicality thrown in for good measure. Combine that with the steady, consistent play of his defensive partner, Jeff Schultz, and the Caps finally have a shutdown pair that other teams should fear.
And they'll have their hands full against some pretty decent snipers in Montreal, not the least of which is Mike Cammalleri - arguably one of their best forwards. Cammalleri was putting up huge points for the Habs before missing a good chunk of the second half with a gruesome leg injury; he's been slow to recover, with just two assists (both in one game) since returning March 24. Still, he's always dangerous and could break out at any time.
Best Montreal Power Play Specialist vs Best Caps Penalty Killer
On the League's second-best power play unit, there's none better than offseason acquisition Brian Gionta - his size and speed enable him to get into spots others can't, sneaking around the ice and only popping up after the puck is in the net. Of all the concerns for the Caps, Gionta's probably the, er, biggest. So to speak.
Luckily the Caps have some steady PK guys to shut him down, like...
Well, they have...hell, let's just say they have Jeff Schultz. Sure. Get 'im, Sarge.
Habs-Killer vs Caps-Killer
Every team has them - the killers, those guys who always seem to score against one team in particular. For Montreal, that Cap-killer is Tomas Plekanec. He's got four goals and an assist in four games against Washington this year, and is at just about a point-per-game pace over the course of his career.
Of course, why worry about that when the Caps have the pride of Winkler, Manitoba on their side? Eric Fehr also has four goals in four games against the Habs. And if for some reason we can't Fehrify the Habs...there's always a certain guy who wears the 'C' that's got pretty good career numbers against them, as well.
This first round series may not hit, say, Caps-Pens level intensity on the ice, nor will it have the same level of drama and hatred. What it will have, however, are two of the craziest, loudest, oddest buildings in the NHL.
Over the last few years, the Caps have taken Washington by storm. Whether it’s the exciting, edge-of-your-seat style they play, their superstar captain who embodies that style or the winning that has come about as a result, DC has reignited its love affair with the Caps. Few buildings are louder than Verizon Center when the fans are rocking the red, and that’s sure to be the case during the playoffs – especially with expectations higher than they’ve been in years.
Montreal fans are a breed unto themselves, raucous and riotous, at the same time ridiculously fickle and fiercely loyal. Bathed in a century of history, they’ve earned a few bragging rights – and they certainly make use of them. Being at a game at Le Centre Bell is more akin to a soccer match overseas than a hockey game, with mocking chants and loud singing reverberating throughout the building. They’ll cheer goals, great individual efforts and appearances from the many hockey luminaries who still call Montreal home; they’ll boo "missed" calls, referees, other team’s stars, their own stars and even the anthems. It’s a tough building to play in, for sure.
So which building will be louder? Hard to say.
But the battle begins Thursday.