The Capitals are going back to Montreal, and the team doesn't seem to have any problem identifying why exactly they'll be heading north of border for one more game (aside: for a great rundown of the reaction in the locker room, take a look at Puckhead's Thoughts' excellent post-game Twitter feed). Bruce Boudreau, in typically blunt fashion, said after the game that his team had "played like crap", while veterans Brendan Morrison and Mike Knuble also commented on the team's poor start. What no one seemed to know was exactly why the Capitals found themselves on their heels as soon as the puck dropped - and that's the bigger issue here.
Obviously the Canadiens were going to come out strong, fighting, literally, for their playoff lives, and arguably with an intensity and desperation the Capitals simply wouldn't be able to match. I can accept that. What I can't accept is that Washington - a team that has battled back from playoff deficits in each of the last two years, a team with a coach who has been in the game for decades and won championships in the minor leagues, a team with a strong veteran presence - looked like they were surprised and, consequently, unprepared for the Canadiens' effort and game plan.
We've said it before, and we'll probably end up saying it again: the Capitals are an incredibly talented hockey team, but if they want to win in the postseason, they're going to need to stop relying solely on their talent, and start using both their brains and their guts.
Ten additional thoughts on tonight's game:
- I'm no expert lip reader, but I'm pretty sure Bruce Boudreau's exclamation after the Capitals were called for their too many men on the ice penalty was "Stupid Fehr!" I've been one of Fehr's biggest defenders in the past and I've been critical of how Boudreau's employed him at times, but Gabby was on the money with this one. If you're coming on the ice for the goalie you simply don't jump on the ice until he's at the bench. Period.
- No matter what, the Capitals are going to get their powerplay going sooner or later. There's simply too much talent there for them not to. The problem is that "sooner or later" isn't good enough for the NHL playoffs. The easiest way to get the unit going again? Simplify things, focusing on getting the puck to the point, getting the shots on net, and getting traffic down low to create a goal off a deflection, screen, or rebound. If I were Boudreau, I'd start my first powerplay in game six with some combination of Brooks Laich, Mike Knuble, and Eric Fehr on the wings - and Tomas Fleischmann and Alexander Semin on the bench.
- With the exception of Marc-Andre Bergeron (who played more minutes on the powerplay than at even strength), no Canadien had an average shift length of more than 49 seconds. Six Capitals had longer average shift lengths, and another four had average shift lengths of 46 seconds or more. That kind of stuff adds up, not just in a game, but in a series.
- We knew coming in to tonight's game that Alexander Semin was struggling to find his game and to do anything in terms of production, but what's worse is that he is now clearly pressing, flinging Hail Mary shots at the net, and not so much expecting to create a scoring chance for himself or a teammate as hoping the puck would somehow find its way to the back of the net.
- ...of course, if you were playing with Tomas Fleischmann, you probably wouldn't have any faith in getting the puck to the other winger doing any good either. Flash, who hasn't scored his postseason, has played in 21 NHL playoff games and has three goals, two assists, and a minus-three rating. That's bad for any top six winger, but it's a disaster given that because Fleischmann doesn't forecheck well, doesn't win faceoffs, isn't a good defensive player, isn't a good penalty killer, and isn't a physical presence, his value is entirely tied to his offensive production. Given his last two postseasons we feared Fleischmann was going to disappear in the playoffs and he has. Is there any reason to expect him to start contributing at this point? If not, is there any reason to give him a sweater over David Steckel or Scott Walker, whose respective faceoff prowess and grit will at least contribute something positive to the team even if they're kept off the scoresheet?
- On that note, here's a point so shocking it gets a bullet of its own: Fleischmann has less ice time (7:26) and fewer shifts (12) than any other Capitals player. And that's 7:26 and 12 shifts more than he should skate in game six.
- Jeff Schultz has received some attention for the fact that his added bulk has helped him become a more physical player along the boards and in front of the net, but one area that isn't talked about much is how it has improved his shot. Sarge's wristers used to look like shanked passes. They're getting to the net a lot quicker these days.
- Missed calls are a fact of life in the hockey world, and they're unavoidable; referees are, after all, only human. But deciding not to call a penalty because another one had been called, say, by ignoring a stick infraction had been whistled because the team incurring the penalty was also called for a too many men on the ice call, is inexplicable, unacceptable, and downright embarrassing. There's really not any other way to put it.
- Boudreau did a pretty effective job of sheltering Tyler Sloan in the Caps' game four win, especially considering the game was on the road, and Sloan responded well, playing a generally solid game. That same can't be said of tonight's match-up, in which Sloan's confusion played a major role in the Canadiens' second goal. Of course, the play might never happen if Joe Corvo doesn't exhibit some embarrassingly weak board play only seconds earlier.
- Coming in to tonight's game Bruce Boudreau had 154 NHL wins and one Jack Adams award, which are 154 more wins and one more Jack Adams Award than I have (or, for that matter, ever will have). That said, starting the game with Alexander Semin and Tomas Fleischmann as the wings on one line and Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr on another just doesn't make sense to me. One set of wings is made up of skill players who like to play on the outside, bring no physical presence, and are helped greatly by a guy who go to the net and create space. One set of wings is made up of guys who don't create a whole lot on their own, but forecheck tenaciously and can pick up garbage goals. Seems like a fairly clear problem in the making.
Game six, in all likelihood, isn't going to be an easy one. The Habs are still alive, they have the luxury of playing without any pressure, and they're going to have more than 22,000 fans ready to try and will them to victory.
In short, expect them to come out strong. And expect to find out whether the Caps learned anything tonight.