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Halak on spot as high-flying Caps take on Habs

by Staff

How ironic is it that the team playing the Montreal Canadiens in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs plays a more wide-open game than the famed "Flying Frenchmen?"

The Flying Capitals? It doesn't have the cache, but it sure is based on fact. Washington scored a League-high 318 goals, compared to Montreal's 217. But the tables turn defensively, where the Habs allowed 223 goals, compared to Washington's 233. But when you have a goal differential of plus-85, as the Capitals do, will defense really matter?

Alex Ovechkin will be the toast of the town in both cities as he will have the full focus on hockey-mad Montreal placed on him. So too will Alexander Semin, Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Green and the rest of the deep and talented Capitals. Former Hab Jose Theodore is sure to be a focal point in Montreal too.

For the Canadien, it has been a season of turmoil and transition, as Bob Gainey stepped down as general manager in favor of Pierre Gauthier and Jaroslav Halak claimed the top goaltending job over Carey Price.

Quick, name another team with a deeper group of forwards and a more dangerous group of front line forwards than Washington?

You can't, but then again, no one really can.

Washington's attack is relentless with a top line of Alex Ovechkin (50 goals, 109 points), Nicklas Backstrom (33 goals, 101 points) and Mike Knuble (29 goals, 53 points) leading the way. The Caps' second line isn't too shabby either with Alexander Semin (40 goals, 84 points), Tomas Fleischmann (23 goals, 51 points) and the courageous Brooks Laich (25 goals, 59 points).

If you want to go deeper, the Caps have another five forwards who have scored in double digits this season, including Eric Fehr, who finished with 21 goals.

Washington has 15 legitimate NHL forwards on the roster, including former Stanley Cup winner Scott Walker, who could very well be a healthy scratch to start the playoffs.

The Canadiens scored only 207 goals for the season (2.56 per game), besting just five other teams. If you only count 5-on-5 play, Montreal was last in the League with 130 goals.

At the start of the season, there was much speculation that Montreal's three newcomers -- Mike Cammalleri, Scott Gomez and Brian Gionta -- would form a dynamic, albeit smallish, line. Personnel changes and injuries to all three players prevented them from becoming a cohesive trio. Gomez and Gionta both recorded a point on the same goal 25 times, and Cammalleri was his most productive playing with Tomas Plekanec and Andrei Kostitsyn.

Plekanec was perhaps the most important forward for the Canadiens all season. He followed a dismal 2008-09 (39 points in 80 games) by setting a career-high with 70 points.

Since being acquired from Minnesota on Nov. 23, Benoit Pouliot has been a revelation, scoring 15-8-23 in 38 games.
The team was dealt a huge blow when reliable two-way center Glen Metropolit suffered a separated shoulder on March 27 that has sidelined him indefinitely.

They say your best defense is a good offense, and three of the Capitals' defensemen rank among the top blue-liners in the League when it comes to plus-minus. Jeff Schultz finished first overall at plus-50 and Mike Green was third at plus-39. He was also the leading scorer among all NHL defensemen with 76 points.

Joe Corvo was a huge deadline acquisition because he's the only Caps' defenseman who has played in a Stanley Cup Final. Corvo was one of Ottawa's top blue-liners in 2007 when the Senators lost to Anaheim in the championship round.

Green in particular will be looking to have a huge postseason after a disappointing showing last spring, when he scored only one goal, had nine points and was a minus-5.

The Canadiens boast a pair of accomplished offensive defensemen in Andrei Markov and Marc-Andre Bergeron, both of whom topped 30 points and likely would have placed somewhere between 40 and 50 each if not for lengthy injuries. Together they totaled 11-26-37 on the power play. Markov also plays shorthanded and finished with a plus-rating, while Bergeron is a bit of a defensive liability which could be a factor late in close games.

Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek have been around a long time, are reliable in all situations and can be productive in spurts. Hal Gill, Ryan O'Byrne and Josh Gorges provide steady defense and little else, as none are especially mobile.

Veteran Paul Mara underwent shoulder surgery mid-way through March and is lost for the season.

Jose Theodore was the Caps' No. 1 going into last season's playoffs, but that lasted a game. Semyon Varlamov replaced him in Game 2 against the Rangers and turned into a cult hero in D.C. Theodore deserves the nod again this season as he appears focused and confident, but Varlamov is again waiting in the wings, and this time with experience..

One is reliable, the other is not, and so it's not difficult to imagine Jaroslav Halak making every postseason start while Carey Price waits for his turn -- if it ever comes -- on the bench. Halak, who began the season as Price's backup, played inspired hockey after the Olympic break following his successful stint as Slovakia' starter. From March 1 on, Halak went 9-3-2 with a 1.78 goals-against average and kept the Canadiens in playoff contention despite their sporadic offense.

Halak placed in the top 10 in the League in goals-against average (2.36), save percentage (.926) and shutouts (5).

Price's playing time dwindled the more important the games became for Montreal in the battle for one of the final playoff berths in the conference. From Jan. 1 on, he was 3-7-2.

Bruce Boudreau has coached in three seven-game playoff series', so he's knows the heat and the pressure. This season, though, is different because Boudreau's team was the best in the NHL basically from start to finish and is a favorite to come out of the East. The pressure is on the affable coach to get the Capitals into the Stanley Cup Final.

Jacques Martin hasn't had an easy time in his first year with Montreal due to over 260 man-games lost with injury. He's coached St. Louis and Ottawa in the Stanley Cup Playoffs a combined 10 seasons (38-47 record), but this is his first trip since 2003-04. Martin is said to favor defensive, puck-possession hockey, which may help Montreal and its anemic offense squeak out its share of wins.

The contrast between the Capitals power play and penalty kill goes along with the general contrast for this team. They are deadly with the man advantage and more times than not it makes up for their below average play on the PK. Washington has the NHL's best power-play at 25.2 percent while ranking 25th in penalty kill at 78.8 percent.

Put the Canadiens on the power play and they will make you pay. They finished with the second-best efficiency in the League at 21.9 percent (56 for 256), but their home-road split was odd. Away from Bell Centre, Montreal was first at 28.3 percent (32 for 113), but at home they were only 16.8 percent (24 for 143).

Montreal's penalty kill was 13th overall at 82.9 percent (53 for 310). Once again, their success was better on the road (83.4 percent, 27 for 163) than at home (82.3 percent, 26 for 147).

Alex Ovechkin, Washington -- He is front and center in everything the Capitals do and there is little doubt he is going to enjoy the spotlight that Montreal will supply.

Marc-Andre Bergeron, Canadiens -- The veteran is one of the reasons the power play is so potent. With a big slap shot from the point, Bergeron has scored 7 times with the man-advantage and racked up 15 assists. He's also adept at carrying the puck out of the defensive zone and making outlet passes.

Capitals will win if... Their stars play like stars and they get solid goaltending. That will be the mantra throughout the playoffs and the Capitals plan on having a deep run.

Canadiens will win if... Goaltender Jaroslav Halak stands on his head, or any other body part, to make the big saves. He will need to make every goal the Canadiens score stand up, and if Halak is up to the challenge it's likely many of Montreal's playoff games will be decided by a goal or two. Staff Writers Dan Rosen and Rocky Bonanno contributed to this report.

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