Friday, April 30, 2010

How Did the Habs Beat the Caps?

alex ovechkin caps sucks
It’s not every day that an eighth seed knocks off a number one seed. But it isn’t exactly Halley’s Comet either. In 1994 the Sharks upset the Wings; in 1995 the Rangers defeated the Nordiques; in 1998 the Senators shocked the Devils; in 1999 the Devils were again upset in the first round, this time by the Pittsburgh Penguins; in 2000 the Sharks beat the first place Blues; in 2002 the Canadiens beat their arch-rival Bruins; in 2006 the Oilers, propelled by Dwayne Roloson, defeated the Red Wings; and of course, last year the Sharks choked against the Ducks. It happens every few year. But each time it happens it’s still shocking (except when it happens to the Sharks).

Montreal’s opening round upset of the Capitals was the fifth biggest in terms of regular season point differential. There was a total of 33 points separating the Habs and the Caps in the regular season standings.

The largest disparity was in 1982 when the Los Angeles Kings upset the Edmonton Oilers. The total point difference between the two teams was 48.

This was certainly a huge upset. I didn’t take the Canadiens seriously and I’m sure no one outside of Montreal did either. Montreal fans can say they knew there would be an upset, but they’re lying. They may have hoped, but they certainly didn’t think it was likely. Although, maybe in their delusion they truly knew it was going to happen. If this year’s 29th place Leafs played the Capitals in the first round I would have thought the same thing. Early onset dementia.

However, I’d say the Oilers upset of the Red Wings in 2006 was greater. The Oilers overcame a 29 point differential, which isn’t as impressive as the Habs’ feat, but the Red Wings were a much more polished playoff team. The Caps have yet to find their way in the post-season and were susceptible to an upset, however unlikely it may have been.

But I’m not here to totally diminish the Canadiens’ accomplishment. Their victory was impressive, especially after falling 3-1 to the NHL’s most explosive team. What I’m sure many people are still trying to figure out is how the Hell did the eighth place Montreal Canadiens manage to beat the President’s Trophy winners? Let’s break it down.

Jaroslav Halak

This is obvious. The Capitals outshot the Canadiens 292-194, yet still lost. In the six games that Halak played he stopped a total of 217 shots - a ridiculous .939%. Only Ilya Bryzgalov and Craig Anderson faced more rubber (and Bryzgalov played an extra game).

In the four games the Canadiens won Halak faced 181 shots and only gave up 5 goals. It’s pretty hard to win games if the other goalie is playing like that.

Over the final three games when the Canadiens were facing elimination Halak faced 134 shots and turned aside all but 3. That’s a .978%. Halak stood on his head and I’m pretty sure he wasn’t shaking when he went to take a drink of water.

In fact, it seemed like Halak started to get into the heads of the Capitals. They looked like a team who felt they would never score, especially in game 7 when Bergeron put the Habs ahead. They played scared.

Blocked Shots

As good as Halak was, he got a lot of help from his defence. Over the course of seven games Montreal blocked a grand total of 182 shots. For every 1.6 shots that the Capitals took there was a Montreal player blocking a shot.

Washington actually blocked shots at a similar rate – 1 blocked shot for every 1.78 shots taken – but the sheer volume that the Canadiens players got in front of is impressive. They knew with the skill of the Capitals if they didn’t block shots then they would have a hard time winning, even with Halak playing like he did.

Hal Gill led the way by blocking 31 shots – almost 4.5 per game. Gill’s partner, Josh Gorges, blocked 20 shots. That’s just will right there.

Shutting Down Ovechkin

It’s hard to imagine that a player who scored 5 goals and 5 assists in 7 games was shut down, but that’s exactly what happened. Ovechkin was held to only one goal and one assist in the four games that the Capitals lost.

It’s true that the Capitals have offensive threats other than Ovechkin, but if you’re able to shut down the most skilled player in the game then you have a very good chance of winning. The tandem of Josh Gorges and Hal Gill was able to contain Ovechkin and frustrated him all series.

Ovechkin did score a goal in game 7 that would have tied the game at one, but it was called back on account of goalie interference. I thought the call was a little dubious, but I’m certainly biased in the matter. I didn’t think Halak’s ability to stop the puck was actually impeded. Knuble does bump his skate, but it doesn’t seem to throw him off at all. He was going down to stop the shot, but it went in because he couldn’t see with Knuble blocking his view. This was Gary Bettman’s way of ensuring the Capitals didn’t make it through - taking the NHL down from the inside. Good job, Gary!

Washington Power-play

Well, there wasn’t one. Washington scored one measly power-play goal in 33 attempts. That’s an abysmal 3%.

Lots of credit needs to be given to Jaroslav Halak and the Montreal defence. Anytime your penalty kill is successful you can bet that the goalie has a big part to do with it. Willing yourself to get down in front of a Mike Green slap shot helps too.

Still, how can a team with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Semin, and Green only score once on the power-play over seven games? This was a team with the most proficient power-play in the league during the regular season, scoring 25% of the time. They were given almost five power-plays a game during this series and could only score once. If I was a Washington fan I would be looking at that stat and crying.

The Disappearance of Green and Semin

I'm pretty sure both these players were last seen in the regular season. Semin had two assists all series, one coming in the final game. He took more shots than any other Capital player (44), but couldn’t finish. That’s very little production for someone who scored 40 goals and 84 points during the regular season.

Mike Green didn’t fare any better. He finished the series with 3 assists, only one of which was in the final three elimination games. The only stat that really stands out is his 12 penalty minutes accumulated. What also stood out was his poor defensive play. A Norris candidate should not be exposed as being poor defensively. Points do not necessarily make a good defenceman.

It’s a cliché, but your best players need to be your best players in order to succeed in the playoffs. Just ask the San Jose Sharks. For Washington, two of their top four players barely even got their names on the score sheet. It’s hard to win when that happens.

A combination of Montreal hard work and the Great Washington Disappearing Act propelled the Canadiens to an improbable seven game series victory. Now they have the honour of facing Sidney Crosby and the defending Stanley Cup champions. I’m sure Montreal fans are dusting off their riot gear and getting ready to tear up the downtown, but I don’t think it’s wise to bet against Crosby.

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