Each Wednesday throughout the regular season Kevin Weekes will be offering his pluses and minuses for the teams competing in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game in his Weekes on the Web blog. Weekes will also be assisting fans with three must-watch elements of the game.
Washington Capitals goalie Braden Holtby has had an amazing season and it's incredible how far he's come from being a good goalie prospect to one of the best goalies in the NHL.
I had to start my blog this week previewing the Wednesday Night Rivalry game at Verizon Center between the Capitals and Boston Bruins (8 p.m. ET; NBCSN, TVA) with Holtby because he deserves the accolades with 40 wins, eight shutouts, a .922 save percentage and 2.24 goals-against average.
Holtby is so much more in control of his own game now. He's played with more structure in his game this season. He's been remarkably patient and quick. He's getting to the spot early to make a consistent save, a positional, sound save, and if he has to make a secondary save off a rebound he's there. He is not chasing the game as much.
One thing Holtby is also doing is he's using his hands and he's using his body to make saves. These aren't easy things to do.
You hear people talk about being a vacuum, and that's a skill in itself. He has that skill. He is absorbing pucks in his midsection, cradling them or letting them die in front of them so he covers them.
It's no surprise to me that the Capitals are in the Stanley Cup Playoffs and battling trying to get second place in the Metropolitan Division. Holtby has been so important to their success, I'd even argue as important as Alex Ovechkin and his 52 goals and 80 points.
Now for my breakdown of the game:
Pluses: They haven't been as sloppy. They've been more consistent in playing their system. They have been less individualistic.
The reality of the Bruins is we know they have good players, some really good players, a couple stars, but they're a system-based team. They can't freelance. That's the reality based on their personnel. They just can't freelance.
During this current stretch, and whenever the Bruins have been winning this year, they have been playing their system first. They are in the right spots. They aren't chasing the game. They aren't expending extra energy having been pinned into their end for too long because of poor coverage or poor decisions in the neutral zone either way. That's not the case for them now, and when they have been on winning streaks this season. That makes all the difference in the world for their group.
It kind of goes hand in hand, but goalie Tuukka Rask is accustomed to a certain type of coverage. I mean, Rask can steal games, we all know that, but he's also accustomed to a certain level of coverage. He's accustomed to his defenders being in the right spot and playing a certain way, and when they do it makes it easier for him to play his game and to trust his positioning instead of having to cheat or overcompensate.
Another plus is quietly how well Torey Krug and Carl Soderberg have played.
Even though Soderberg hasn't scored a lot, he's just a very important player for the Bruins. He's tall, rangy, can play multiple positions. He's a natural center but you can also play him on the wing. There's a lot of different things he's capable of doing. There are a lot of different looks he can give you.
As for Krug, just the Bruins spending less time in their zone, he's a key part of that. He can skate it out of trouble or pass it out of trouble. He joins the attack as well or better than any defensemen they have. He comes in for the second wave and acts as a fourth forward. He activates and comes down to make a play. I think he's an underrated key piece to that team and certainly one of the most underrated players in the Eastern Conference.
The other thing is there are only a few players in the NHL who are real X factors and when Milan Lucic plays the way he has played of late he's a real X factor. Opposing defensemen have to look over their shoulders and ask themselves, "Do I really want to go back and get the puck with him coming at me like a freight train?"
Lucic is a difference maker when he's engaged, and right now he's dialed in and playing like an impact player.
Minuses: It's still consistency, even though the Bruins have been better with this of late, as I mentioned above. They have shown they can lose their consistency pretty quickly this season. It's not a negative now, but it has been and it can be again.
You can tell when they lose it because they become more individualistic, they force plays that aren't there, miss spots defensively, allow gaps that lead to opportunities through the middle of the ice, and they don't make smart decisions with the puck in the neutral zone.
The reality is they have emerging stars and veteran stars, but they can't score their way out of trouble. They're not the Chicago Blackhawks. Even the St. Louis Blues are better at doing that this year. The Capitals can do it. The Tampa Bay Lightning can do it. The Bruins can't score their way out of trouble. They don't have that explosive offense on a nightly basis so they have to play within their structure.
If you look at the year they won the Stanley Cup in 2011 it was almost as though coach Claude Julien had to loosen up on the defensive side to let players attack. That's not the case now. They don't have the same personnel so they have to play a system-based game and at times this year they haven't.
Pluses: You have to go with Ovechkin here. There's just too much to love about how he's been and how well he's played and how he's handled himself, his approach and how open minded he's been.
People have to consider that when you look at Ovechkin he's had a lot of different coaches and it's hard to have all those coaches and continue to produce the way he has. It says a lot about him that he has.
Left Wing - WSH
GOALS: 52 | ASST: 28 | PTS: 80
SOG: 389 | +/-: 11
He's in the elite of the elite of the elite of the elite in terms of goal scorers. He's in the best in the history of the game conversation. But the fact that he's open to learn and wants to learn, and is willing to adjust, says a lot about him and his desire to win. I don't think he's given enough credit for that.
I'll tell you this, quite frankly, not every star player out there is as open minded as Ovechkin and would still be as open minded as he is to the organization. A lot of players don't like change and if they have something good they definitely don't want change, but Ovechkin has had it good for a while and credit to him because he's been open to finding different combinations, different ways to play for his team to have success.
One of the things that impressed me was after a game the other night he was talking about the depth players in the lineup. That's how you win. When you're a star you empower the people around you. That's true leadership.
He was talking about Troy Brouwer and Brooks Laich and Joel Ward and Jason Chimera and Eric Fehr. Look at those guys, some of them are around 20 goals and those are key depth players. When you have depth players who can also play with one of the best scorers ever in the game it tells you a lot about how good they are.
Credit to Ovechkin for recognizing it, and opening up to want to be with them and to play with them.
Minuses: We're all creatures of habit regardless of who we are, and when the heat gets turned up for the Capitals the key is for them to not default to doing different things, but rather to stay the course for what they have done this season.
Really the Capitals don't have to change anything. They are hard to play against. I spoke to one superstar from the Western Conference on Tuesday and he told me, "Man, that Caps team is for real." That tells me everything you need to know.
They are playing playoff hockey, have been playing playoff hockey, so they don't need to change their game.
The one thing that would be a concern is that because they haven't seen the fruits of their labor in the playoffs yet, what happens if they lose early, drop a few games? Do they revert back and try to play that game where they outscore everybody again. That's not how they win anymore. That's not good for them. They can't do that.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH
1. Boston's discipline
Washington's power play is lethal, the best in the NHL at 25.3 percent. Boston can't give the Capitals freebies.
2. Consistency and system play from the Bruins
Just as I stated above, they need to play with structure. They can't run around. They can't be individualistic out there.
3. Who plays against Ovechkin?
Is it going to be Patrice Bergeron? It should be. But will it be? Is it going to be Zdeno Chara, if he plays in the game? If he plays, who is he paired with against Ovechkin?