Overall, the Washington Capitals have not had the best season to date and still find themselves on the outside-looking-in at the playoffs, sitting
at 9th in the Eastern Conference. However, for some reason, the one team the Caps have had consistent success against has been the Montreal Canadiens. That success continued Friday night when the Caps returned to the Verizon Center, as they defeated the visiting Habs, 4-1. Both the players and coaches attributed the wins over Montreal to favorable matchups and jumping on them early, but what gives them that advantage? The fact that Washington is playing a team that has similar issues as their own game is a big part of the dominance over the Canadiens.
One would think that there isn’t much to compare these two teams, considering one team has 24 Stanley Cups and the other team has only one Stanley Cup Final appearance — which they lost (I’ll let you figure out which one is which). However, in terms of how these two have played of late this season, there are more similarities that seem to be more visible when these two teams play each other. With the Capitals still being a better team than they seem like, they’ve been the ones to take advantage of such similarities — almost as if looking in the mirror and seeing what everyone else has seen lately.
The Caps came into Friday’s game as a team that struggles to exit their zone without making a brutal mistake. Best example: the Caps’ last game against the Carolina Hurricanes where they lost 5-0. Justin Bourne did a great job of analyzing just one of the five goals scored against Washington that exposed the Caps’ struggles on zone clearance. Demonstrated by Bourne, almost always with five skaters in the defensive zone, it usually seems as though only two have any actual impact on protecting the puck, while the others are just hanging around expecting the puck to be cleared instead of positioning themselves in any other event. More often than not, it causes turnovers and only more time playing in their own end.
Fun fact: the Habs have the SAME problem. Example: Just on the first goal, a blind attempt by Tomas Plekanec to move the puck along the boards presumably to clear went awry, and as Jason Chimera obtained possession of the puck, he sent the puck just wide of the net where Mathieu Perreault kept his head up and found great positioning to bank in the goal. Carey Price called the goal a “collective brain cramp,” which the Caps took note of and scored. There’s your early goal for Washington. Still, while Brooks Laich, Matt Hendricks and coach Dale Hunter made this the point at which they won the game, the last time the Caps scored first was Feb. 9 against Winnipeg — they lost that game in overtime.
Montreal and Washington are two of the worst teams in terms of being able to break out, mostly due to their struggles in their own end. The Caps seemed to have no problem with that, seeing as the second goal of the night by Jason Chimera was a semi-breakaway and this time really drove the net, putting enough force behind the puck to push it past Carey Price and behind the goal line for the league-approved goal. The next goal, a beauty by Alex Ovechkin, was probably an even better example of such, as the Capitals moved the puck quickly and created enough space to continue around the stationary Habs defense to put a third goal past Price.
One more similarity, the pressure the Caps have going forward is much like a Canadian team — even Elliotte Friedman said so the other day. This “Canadian-franchise level pressure” going on for the Caps is akin to pressure that teams that struggle like Montreal still face, such as urging to make trades, the need to win a Cup sooner than later, the frustration at the less-than-average seasons by the Caps’ superstars is unlike Washington has ever dealt with before. Moving forward, they are one point behind the Florida Panthers for eighth in the conference and two behind Winnipeg for the lead. Despite the panic among Caps fans, the Caps are 99% not sellers by Monday, the trade deadline, especially after their win over the Habs on Friday. With that in mind, and with the pressure to succeed, they will need to find ways to plug those holes and fix the mistakes that have almost damned their season. Hunter said after the game he wishes he could “bottle it up” whatever it is that the Caps have against the Canadiens. Next chance to do so will be in a huge game against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are in 10th, but tied with the Caps with 65 points.