Over the final 20 games of the 2007-08 regular season, the Washington Capitals’ goaltending and defense combined to allow just 37 goals. Just 20 of those goals were scored at even strength, and one of those 20 was an empty-netter.
After permitting an average of 3.12 goals per game for the first 52 games of the season, the Caps shaved that number to 1.85 per contest over the final 20 games of the campaign. While the Caps have to feel good about those numbers going into the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Philadelphia Flyers on Friday, the Flyers feature the league's second-best power play and seven 20-goal scorers.
The value of adding an experienced backliner to a mostly young group of up-and-comers can’t be emphasized enough. Last July, the Caps signed defenseman Tom Poti
to a four-year deal as an unrestricted free agent. Washington expected Poti to help bolster its power play.
Instead, the emergence of Mike Green
has lifted the power play while Poti’s good stick and steady play in his own end has been a revelation. Although he recently celebrated his 31st birthday, Poti is the greybeard among Washington defensemen.
“I’ve been in the league for 10 years,” he says. “It doesn’t feel that long, It kind of goes by in the bat of an eyelash.
“We’ve been playing good team defense. Our forwards are helping us out so much down low and making it easier for us to keep pucks out of our net.”
Even after a decade in the league, Poti has an undeserved reputation for being suspect in his own end of the ice. He has made a minimal number of mistakes this season, has played well on both special teams, moved the puck well and helped bring along the team’s younger defensemen.
“It’s a knock any offensive defenseman will get,” Poti shrugs, discussing his reputation. “When you first come into the league and you put up some points, they say ‘He’s an offensive player and not very good on defense.’ That’s just a knock that everyone kind of gives you. I’ve always taken a lot of pride in my defensive work and I’ve been on the [penalty killing unit] throughout my whole career, so I find that characterization a little unjust. But at the same time I don’t really care what people think.”
Poti has had a few different partners this season, and has worked seamlessly with each of them.
“I got a chance to play with Tommy from the start [of the season],” says Green, “and watching him and playing with him you understand the game a little bit better because of his experience and his composure.”
Poti and Jeff Schultz
have formed an extremely effective tandem over the final quarter of the season, giving the Caps a pair of big bodies with long arms and good sticks.
“Big time,” says Schultz, when asked how much having Poti around has helped the team’s younger defensemen. “If we have questions we can always go to him if the coaches aren’t around. He’s been in the playoffs, he knows how the games are down the stretch when it’s playoff hockey. He knows what it takes to get there and be successful.”
In helping the Caps’ young defensemen, Poti is providing the type of assistance he received when he was a kid coming up through the ranks in Edmonton.
“Marty McSorley helped me tremendously,” remembers Poti. “We lived in the same building and we used to ride to practice and games together. He helped me out a ton, not just on the ice but off the ice as well with how to prepare and get ready for games and things like that.”
As Caps prepare for their first-round series with the Philadelphia Flyers, the health of Schultz and Shaone Morrisonn – both top-four defensemen on the team – is in question. Poti’s presence may be more important than ever; he is the only healthy member of Washington’s blueline corps with any previous NHL playoff experience (24 games), and he is a guy who is capable of playing more than the 23:29 a night he averaged in 2007-08.
Poti played plus or even hockey in 18 of his last 21 games of the regular season, the most important stretch of the campaign. He was plus-11 with a goal and 12 points during that period.
“Personally, I’ve always liked the way he played,” says Caps general manager George McPhee. “I remember I scouted a game in New Jersey when he was playing for Edmonton, must have been five or six years ago. I just liked his range. He’s got a long stick and he just does the right thing with the puck all the time. And he defends really well. He’s got a good stick.
“He’s been knocked from time to time for various things, and I didn’t see it. We just thought that he would be a real nice addition to our blueline. I feel good being able to stand here today and say, ‘We were right,’ because sometimes you miss something. But we didn’t on this guy.
“He’s a real valuable defenseman. He’s poised, experienced, doesn’t get rattled, moves the puck. But you have to be able to defend first before you can doing anything. Being able to defend and then adding some offense makes you valuable.”
Poti has played 665 regular season games in the NHL. No other Caps blueliner has as many as 300 games in the league.
Poti was the only new face on the Washington blueline this season. The injection of Poti’s experience has helped to stabilize a mostly young group, and that young group has improved. The Caps cut their goals against total from 275 in 2006-07 to 227 in 2007-08.
“[Poti’s signing] is important because in the past we were playing kids with kids or kids with guys that weren’t proven NHL players,” says McPhee. “And that’s a hard way for kids to learn. But that’s what we were going to do. We were going to make sure the kids played for a few years and not spend a lot of money on free agents when it wouldn’t have been worth it. But you can just see in the little things that a guy like [Sergei] Fedorov does here, someone who has won some Cups, the things that he can tell people, the stuff he imparts to the young guys, makes a difference.”
Caps coach Bruce Boudreau doesn’t care about whatever reputation Poti may have had at his previous NHL stops.
“I don’t know what he was,” says the Caps' coach, “but I know he is a very solid player. He is our Mr. All-Around. He can make plays, he is very important defensively. When he is on top of his game, he is as good as there is.
“We really count on him. With the experience that we don’t have back there, there are a lot of big games where he is the best player on the ice, quietly, and no one notices it. He knows the wars, he’s been through [them] and he knows what’s coming. He’s got the experience.”