I know we’re already a game into the Stanley Cup Playoffs (due to deadlines, the results of Wednesday’s opener against the Rangers were not available), but the lessons from the regular season and last year’s heartbreaking opening series against the Flyers still have plenty of time to be applied.
As we head into Game 2 and beyond this weekend, let’s see if the Caps can use what they have learned, or if they just get schooled.
There’s no time like the present
The Post‘s Mike Wise mentioned, correctly in my opinion, that if Theodore doesn’t step up for the playoffs, he’ll sit down next season while Simeon Varlamov assumes the starting role. Theodore can’t worry about that. He can’t look ahead to next year, the next series, the next game or even the next shot. In fact, he shouldn’t think at all. It can only hurt the team.
When it comes down to it, he needs to remember that goaltending is really a simple exercise. Step 1.) Stop the puck. Step 2.) Repeat.
Theodore is one of the best reflexive goalies in the NHL, a style that perfectly suits the Caps’ split personality as uber-aggressive offense (four players averaging more than a point per game) and occasionally lax defense (allowing more than a healthy amount of breakaways as a result of turnovers along the offensive zone blue line). Theo has stopped the opposition cold on the break, but other times he’ll pull off the post early or slide too far past it, slipping out of position and leaving the net yawning behind him.
When he keeps it simple, when he locks in on Step One, he’s more than capable of carrying the Caps to the Cup. But to do so, he’ll have to focus on carrying them one save at a time. After so many opportunities to learn from his mistakes in the regular season, Theodore should know this one by heart. Let’s see if he applies it.
Adhere to the teachings of Mr. T … and Gandhi
Washington spent the first three games against the Flyers discovering that play in the postseason is much more physical than the regular season. The Caps shouldn’t need that adjustment period this year, but they’ll be dealing with a true pain – Sean Avery. Famous for his discomforting tactics, including disparaging his ex-girlfriend in graphic terms to TV cameras, Avery agitated his way right off of his own team this season. But after the Stars set him free, the Rangers signed him to unleash on opponents.
He will buzz Theodore in the crease, he will get in Ovechkin’s ear, he will cheap shot someone in the deft manner that escapes the referee’s notice while his opponent is sent to the sin bin for retaliation. If Washington wants a piece of him, it has to be Donald Brashear or Matt Bradley dropping the gloves. While Avery’s tactics haven’t been as beneficial to New York, since the Rangers’ power play is the second worst in the league, it’s still a bad trade for Avery to take a guy like Ovechkin, Semin, Green, et al off the ice for two minutes for retaliating to his deviance. The Caps’ stars are going to have to go to their happy place – which will likely be a vision of them advancing to the second round … or The Donald dropping Avery at center ice.
Stay disciplined, stay out of the box
The Caps have been very prone to penalties this year for two main reasons: Their aggressive attack sometimes puts them in desperate defensive positions, requiring them to take a penalty to stop a breakaway. And second, in their eagerness to spring a break of their own, their defensemen hold the puck too long in their own zone, waiting for a forward to free up for a long outlet pass. The defensemen will turn it over, and Washington will be out of position and taking a penalty to avoid a prime scoring opportunity.
As mentioned, the Rangers’ power play is about as productive as a Capitol Hill committee meeting. Even so, time on the penalty kill is time the Caps can’t spend attacking … and time that Ovechkin is off the ice. And if they need some more incentive, just remember this age-old adage of the NHL: “You’re best penalty killer has to be your goalie.” As unstable as the Caps’ crease has been this year, Washington would do well to avoid adding undo pressure to Theodore’s shoulders.