One year ago, Coach Bruce Boudreau called out some of his troops for being what he called "passengers" in a disappointing Game 5 loss to Montreal – a loss that would send the series back to Montreal and ultimately turn the tide in a horrifying collapse.
This year there was no loss, no first-round collapse, no blown series lead. And looking up and down the roster for their five-game series against the Rangers, no players who could rightfully be termed "passengers", either. In fact, there are a number of Caps who stepped it up when they needed to and then some, among both the expected and the unsung. As we look ahead to the next round, a look back at some guys who need to maintain (and a few who might need to pick it up, just a little)...
Those For Whom Play Exceeded Expectations
Alexander Semin – Coming into this postseason, Semin was in a goalless drought that extended almost two years, dating back to Game 7 vs. the Rangers, April 28, 2009. In the two series that followed he was ineffective at best, hampered by injury and the usual Semin-itis that causes him to inexplicably go invisible at times. That wasn't the case in Round 1, however, as Semin was focused and effective throughout, picking up the overtime winner in Game 1 and adding goals in pivotal Games 4 and 5 to cap off an all-around solid series. The always enigmatic Semin will continue to be a question mark until he strings together some consistency, but we know this much: when Semin is focused, he's dangerous. And that can only be good for the Caps.
Mike Green – There are plenty of players on this team who were dealing with past disappointment; blowing a 3-1 series lead doesn't let many off the hook in terms of needing to find their postseason stride. For Green, however, it's a monkey that seemed to have taken up permanent residence on his back, a reputation of being a playoff choker that has (somewhat unfairly) followed him for the past few years. This year he seemed bound and determined to shake it, and seems to be on course to do just that, with a goal and four assists - the only player to register a point in all five games. That's tied for the third-best point total of any defenseman in the postseason so far, trailing only players who have appeared in more games. He also finished the series a plus-three, a feat made all the more impressive considering the low goal differential in the series and the fact that three of the thirteen goals scored by the Caps came on the power play. With a series like that, here's hoping that puck to the noggin shook nothing loose except a few pieces of his helmet...
John Erskine – The onus is always on the "stars" of a team to step it up in the playoffs; the true mark of a team with depth and talent, however, is how guys that don’t usually hog the spotlight are also able to elevate their game. Erskine’s not going to set the world on fire with his offense and he'll eternally be overshadowed by the Mike Greens and John Carlsons of the world, but his grit and willingness to sacrifice the body (or nullify the Rangers’ antics) really showed through in this series. It was a great five-game stretch for Erskine, one in which he threw sixteen hits and blocked nine shots; most importantly, however, was the fact that he was on for just two goals-against: the series-opening goal and a last-minute goal in the final game of the series that came while he was attending to a little business. With Dennis Wideman potentially making his return this round, Erskine's making Boudreau’s personnel decisions all the more difficult.
Brooks Laich – No one was more vocal about the pain that came from blowing that 3-1 series lead last year than Brooks Laich. At times it all seemed too much, a lot of fancy talk and overly dramatic words from someone who hadn't yet backed them up. Well, he started to do just that in the first round, playing a hard-nosed game that boosted the offense while never sacrificing in his own end (unless you count him sacrificing his own body). Laich’s still waiting for his first goal of the 2010-11 playoffs but he picked up four assists and, with Mike Knuble still out with injury, earned a spot on the top line alongside Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom.
Marcus Johansson – For a rookie playing in his first NHL playoffs, the expectations are usually limited to two things: don't get in the way and don't get killed. For Johansson, however, it was a series that mirrored his regular season in that he never looked out of place and got stronger as the series went on. By the end he was a difference-maker, picking up not one but two goals to fuel the third period comeback of Game 4 and adding a gorgeous saucer pass on Semin's insurance goal in the series-clinching Game 5. If he can keep it up, that depth down the middle just gets more and more appealing.
Karl Alzner – He may be just 22-years-old, but Alzner has never really played like a rookie and doesn’t seem likely to start now. After seeing just one game of postseason action last year, he’s made a name for himself on the 2010-11 Caps as being a solid, steady defender who can block a mean shot and keep things calm in his own end. His first full playoff series was a very good one overall despite the somewhat shocking minus-four rating next to his name, and his average ice time of 23:36 a night trailed only Scott Hannan and John Carlson among all Caps’ defensemen.
Michal Neuvirth – Fans and media alike disagreed over whether Neuvirth should have gotten the starting role heading into this year’s playoffs. After five games, however, there’s no question that he’s taken the job and run with it. His save percentage and GAA both rank second among all playoff goalies, trailing only San Jose’s Antero Niitymaki (who played just two games to Neuvirth’s five), and no goalie who started – and finished – five games has given up fewer than the eight goals Neuvirth surrendered to the Rangers. Oh, and that playoff series winning streak? Still intact, at 15…and hopefully counting.
Those For Whom Expectations Exceeded Play
Nicklas Backstrom – He hasn’t been playing badly, per se, certainly not when compared to some of his rougher stretches during the regular season. But so far we’ve yet to see the Backstrom we’re used to, the dominant playmaker and sneaky-strong center who elevates his own game and the games of those around him when needed. He has just one assist in five games; as a frame of reference, the other guys with just one assist on the Caps are John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Marco Sturm and Scott Hannan. The Caps have been able to manage so far with strong performances from fellow pivots Marcus Johansson and Jason Arnott, but they really need their top-line center to play like a top-line center.
John Carlson – Speaking of sleeping giants, Carlson had a fairly decent defensive outing but wasn’t the secondary offensive threat on the blue line that the Caps need him to be. Some of that is a result of Boudreau’s tendency to throw a five-forward power play out on the ice, as Carlson’s time with the extra man dropped by almost a minute from the regular season, but he wasn’t a factor in the offense despite getting the second-highest ice time on the team. And while he has the speed to recover, Carlson needs to simplify his game a bit more to avoid getting caught out of position. Against a team like the Rangers, it didn’t hurt the Caps too often; against a faster, more offensively potent team, it might.
Matt Hendricks – In a series that was dominated by grit and a grind-it-out kind of mentality, one would normally look to the fourth line to provide an extra boost. And while this is an area in which Hendricks usually excels, he was surprisingly absent this time around, with no points, minimal sandpaper and a minus-two rating despite skating about ten minutes a night. Ultimately there were enough guys chipping in that a less-than-stellar performance (particularly in Game 3) wasn't the team's downfall; but when Mike Knuble is ready to go someone has to sit, and the list of potential candidates is short.