Commentary

First-round breakdown: Caps-Habs

Updated: April 17, 2010, 12:16 AM ET
By Scott Burnside | ESPN.com

Where to start with the accolades for one of the most dominant teams in recent NHL history?

Well, the Capitals were so good, they locked up the Presidents' Trophy with more than a week to go in the regular season. They finished 33 points ahead of their first-round opponents, the Montreal Canadiens. They are the first team since 2005-06 to score more than 300 goals. They have seven players with 20 or more goals, including Alex Ovechkin, who topped the 50 mark for the fourth time in five seasons, and Mike Green, who once again led all NHL defensemen with 76 points. They have the league's best home record, losing just five regulation games at always sold-out Verizon Center.

So, if all this sounds like Washington's first-round tilt against Montreal is a colossal mismatch … well, that's because it is.

If the eighth-seeded Habs upend the Capitals, it would rank as one of the biggest upsets since the New York Islanders took down Mario Lemieux and the defending Cup champs from Pittsburgh in 1993, or Ken Dryden and the Canadiens defeated Bobby Orr and the Boston Bruins back in '71.

No disrespect to the Canadiens, but they're not hitting the postseason in juggernaut-like fashion, winning just three of their past 11 games and backing into the playoffs Saturday night with an overtime loss to lowly Toronto.

The Canadiens will be counting heavily on Jaroslav Halak to give them above-average goaltending in his first role as a playoff starter, although one imagines it wouldn't take much for coach Jacques Martin to go to Carey Price if Halak falters. Beyond that, the Habs better hope the Bell Centre ghosts are plenty active if they hope to derail the Washington express.


1. The captain: Since Ovechkin was named captain on Jan. 5, the Capitals are a league-best 30-4-8; but this spring, there is significant pressure on Ovechkin to prove he's not just a point machine, but a leader of men. The way to prove that, of course, is to take the Caps farther up the playoff mountain, which means advancing to at least the conference finals, if not further.

Ovechkin missed 10 games to injury or suspension and still finished second in NHL scoring with 109 points and will no doubt be on the final ballot for what could be his third straight Hart Trophy as league MVP. He is full value for that honor, but Ovechkin did hit a bit of a wobble after the Olympics, scoring just four times in his first 15 games after he and the Russians exited the Olympic tournament on a disappointing note. But Ovechkin did finish with four goals in his past three games to reach the 50-goal plateau for the fourth time in five seasons (only Mike Bossy and Wayne Gretzky did the same).

But one of the main backstories to another superlative season has been his reckless play and whether the twin suspensions he incurred would change his edgy style. Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau said he thought it took Ovechkin a while to get back to his game after the suspensions, but he doesn't sound worried about his captain bringing his A-game to the postseason.

"I think every year is going to be his best season," Boudreau said of Ovechkin on the eve of the playoffs. "He just seems to get better. He hasn't reached his prime as far as age goes."

2. Finding the charge: Having long ago sewn up the Atlantic Division crown, the Eastern Conference's top seed and more recently the Presidents' Trophy, it's been a long time since the Capitals played in a meaningful game. Which begs the question: How long will it take for the Caps to get fully engaged in the playoffs?

We're guessing not long if the attitudes of Boudreau and his players suggest anything. Boudreau takes exception to the idea his team has been coasting along for the past month or so. The former Jack Adams Award winner as coach of the year insisted this stretch run was different than last season, when the Caps were locked into the Atlantic lead early on and finished up against many teams that had been eliminated from the playoff races.

"Every game we've played has been meaningful. I'm being serious when I say that," Boudreau said, pointing to late-season games against Boston, Atlanta and Pittsburgh, all of whom were battling for a playoff spot or positioning. "I think it's been a totally different situation this year because we're getting great efforts from everybody we play. I mean, they all have reasons to keep playing as hard as they can, so I find we've got lots and lots of reasons to play hard."

Looking for proof to support this assertion? How about the Caps' nine wins in their past 14 games. Over that period, they lost just once in regulation. Doesn't sound like a team coasting anywhere but to the second round.

3. David and Goliath: A lot has been made this season about how the Canadiens are built as far as their forward unit is concerned: small and skilled. Now, sometimes size matters; but if the Canadiens are going to have a chance of playing David to Washington's Goliath, it better not matter. The Capitals boast a defense corps that averages more than 6-foot-3 in height. None of their blueliners are less than 6 feet tall, which means Canadiens forwards Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri will have to use their speed and puck-control skills to stay out of harm's way, make plays down low and not allow the bigger Washington defenders to easily dislodge them from the puck.

The Capitals forwards are also an imposing group; Scott Walker is the pipsqueak of the lot at 5-10 and he just plays like he's 6-3. Expect the Washington forwards, a group that includes 6-4 Eric Fehr, 6-5 Dave Steckel and 6-3 Mike Knuble, to put significant pressure on an underappreciated Habs blue line.

4. Oh, Jose can you play?: Jose Theodore's season marks one of the more dramatic renaissance stories in recent history. After suffering the loss of his infant son during the offseason, Theodore not only rebounded to restore himself as the Caps' starting netminder, but he has also been nearly unbeatable in regulation over the last half of the regular season.

Since Jan. 13, Theodore has gone 20-0-3 with a 2.58 goals-against average and .922 save percentage (overall, he is 30-7-7). And while Boudreau has been coy about who his starting goaltender will be, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know it's going to be Theodore. But -- and isn't there always a "but" when it comes to Theodore? -- Boudreau's confidence in the former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner was so low last spring, he yanked Theodore after the first game of the playoffs (a loss to the New York Rangers) and went with untested Semyon Varlamov.

Theodore's leash will be somewhat longer this year, and the team is significantly improved in front of him, so maybe it won't matter if he makes the odd whiff. But it hasn't stopped people from wondering if goaltending won't ultimately undo the Caps' Stanley Cup dreams. The fact Theodore will be returning to his hometown, and the site of his greatest goaltending accomplishments as a member of the Canadiens, will add yet another layer of intrigue to this matchup.

5. The kill and … oh, yeah … that thing called defense: An extension of the oft-repeated concerns about the Capitals' chances of winning a Cup (goaltending and team defense) has been the work of their penalty-killing unit. They ranked 25th as of Sunday, but Boudreau said earlier this week he thought the team had worked through the problems in keeping opponents from taking advantage on the man advantage against Washington.

"Well, we've addressed it," Boudreau said. "You can go back as far as 10 or 12 games, and you'll see our penalty killing has been right up with the best. So I think we've addressed it. Hopefully we don't have to address it anymore."

Something Boudreau addressed during training camp was overall team discipline (yeah, we know that guy Ovechkin sometimes went off the rails, but bear with us), and Washington was 13th in the league in taking the fewest minor penalties. One sure way to give an under-manned team life in the postseason is giving them time on the power play, especially when it's a power play like Montreal's (second overall in NHL). Maintaining that team discipline will be important for the Caps.


• Depth versus depth or five-on-five play: The Canadiens will be hoping to take advantage of any Caps penalties, but their only hope in staying close in this series is to not get buried five-on-five. It's a daunting task since the Capitals scored 213 five-on-five goals and gave up just 136. If that's not imposing enough, when leading or tied after the second period this season, the Caps are 46-5-9. That means, in most games, opponents have had to open up the game in an effort to come from behind or stay with the Capitals. That may explain the Caps' 111-67 goal differential in the third period.

For the Habs to match up, they'll need contributions from not just the top-six forwards, but also from guys like Maxim Lapierre and Dominic Moore. This is where the Habs will especially miss plucky center Glen Metropolit, who is out with a shoulder injury but was hoping to make it back early in the playoffs.


• Washington: Before being blanked in Game 82, center Nicklas Backstrom had recorded three straight three-point games. He has 18 points in his past 14 games and finished the season fourth in the NHL with 101 points. Varlamov has just two wins in his past eight starts, allowing three or more goals in six of those games.

• Montreal: Gionta led all Habs with 28 goals and had one goal in each of his past three games. Cammalleri has produced just two points, both in the same game, in the nine games he's played in since returning from a knee injury.


• The Capitals simply have too much of everything for the Canadiens, who will be hard-pressed to win a game. Capitals in five games.

Scott Burnside covers the NHL for ESPN.com.