How The Canadiens Could Upset The Capitals
Not many are expecting the Canadiens to rattle the hockey world and pull off the upset of the decade. Some may feel that the battle of David and Goliath has nothing on the Montreal Canadiens and Washington Capitals mismatch. That's not to say that there aren't ways to make it happen.
All statistical matter being obvious, the Canadiens would appear to have about as much chance of winning as they would pushing sh*t uphill with a rubber fork. Nonetheless, surface estimations based purely on the statistical do on occasion mislead.
The Habs did beat the Capitals twice this season, losing another in a shootout. Only those not paying close attention would have missed how close their four games were this season, and many more would be equally surprised to learn that Montreal held the lead longer during those four contests than did the Capitals.
Bring forth a pair of points of contention, such as Montreal playing a sizeable chunk of their season with a depleted lineup, the fact that Washington plays in the weak Southern Division, in which they are the only playoff bound club, and that Montreal's division is hockey's toughest with four teams joining the post season party, and the perceived gap between the Caps and Habs is shrinking.
No need for a history lesson of the "anything can happen in the playoffs" variety. Things, freakish happenings, do occur, however that can hardly be the basis of any argument for an upset in the making.
Being that Washington play an open style, Martin must exploit that ideal in convincing his players, not that they should try to run and gun with them at every step, but that there will be game situations aplenty in which they will have opportunity to pounce. Montreal's greatest asset can be its speed if used timely and wisely, and against Washington, the team has to believe it can work its way to wins.
Once Martin has accomplished building his team's confidence, then and only then can he sell the plan.
A continued step in bringing the Capitals closer to earth and more even (mortal?) in the Habs players eyes is to charge forth with a game plan that is designed to get under the Washington player's skins at the most opportune moments. The ploy has several layers and must be unrelenting.
It starts with placing an intense effort on the forcheck. Many of the Canadiens best games this season have come from the effects of a rabid puck pursuit pressure, and it would go to great lengths in nipping Capital offense starting in their zone. If the Habs are making it harder for Washington to spring its horses, and they are playing in their own zone too much for the liking, it will build frustration.
One key of this emphasis is a fortified two man forecheck on the puck, with concentrated doses of aggravation towards Mike Green and company's breakout work. It will take two players to make Green's lanes harder to see and hit, and as the Capitals forwards tend to work on the assumption he'll have the needed space and time, this is where the Canadiens need to begin to nip. Plainly stated, Caps forwards have a tendency to float. Keeping the puck from them as they are about to be sprung will rob the wheels from their wagon, leading to them becoming somewhat irritable at times.
Noting what could bring about frustration, aggravation and irritability in the Capitals is a large part of the game plan. What else do elite team's hate more than an opponent that shows no respect for them?
Proud teams, those of the elite variety, tend to hate having their feathers ruffled, gloves shoved into their faces, and constant after the whistle hassles. They react vehemently at those getting under their skin, and will retalliate and become undisciplined. If the Canadiens can succeed in being thorns in the faces of their foes, it could go a long way towards unbalancing the flow of the Capital's game. Not only will penalties be called reducing icetime, it will also lead to attention being spent elsewhere as players begin looking over their shoulders a tad more often. The Canadiens most fearsome weapon is their powerplay. To win this series, or have any chance to, they must use it, use it often and be successful.
A big problem is, that this just isn't Jacques Martin style hockey. (Some would say, "In other words, he don't know what it takes to win!") Getting nasty is hardly been a Canadiens or Martin trait this season (ever?), and they must have to learn to enjoy doing something unlike their nature in order to shake the Capitals up. Shoves, gloves, and no love at both ends of the ice will grate on the Capitals nerves, and it's essential for the Canadiens to bring it fast and bring it first, as it will also be done to them in spades. It cannot relent and must last the length of the series. Players, some, not all, will tire of it, back down and coil away
Relentlessly extracting the vinegar from the proud team serves to keep their minds more occupied on such matters and distracted some from the more basic hockey concerns. Getting the Capitals off their game, even if it is for only short stretches of time, has its dividends. Not planning to bother the Capitals, would be a grave mistake.
If it sounds thus far that sandpaper tactics alone will foil the Capitals, that would be mistaken. The Canadies will also need to generate offense, and sizeable doses of it, to stay in the game, and ahead of it.
Seeing as the Capitals will want to be as unrelenting in their forecheck as the Canadiens wish to be, there is no better time than now for the Habs to gel as units of five on the ice. All five men coming back on the play cannot be perceived in the sense of sacrificing offence, but against the high flying Capitals, as a means to begin it.
The Canadiens best games late in the season - the post Olympic six game win streak, specifically - happened due to the concentrated work of five players playing responsibly and for one another on the ice.
When Montreal are at their worst, this is the exact facet that breaks down first, and leads to a complete crumbling of their game. Washington has size upfront and will win their fair share of puck battles. If Montreal players are passengers in their own zone, the series will be short.
With players coming back on the play, intent on playing the game on every inch of 200 feet of ice, every part of the team game is further facilitated. The best thing is that, when a team brings this specific committment on a continued basis, no opponent can legally get in the way of it. The enforcement of the five man unit is done mostly without the puck, and is all about keeping feet moving and finding position. Teams that desire to emphatically stick to the plan are difficult ones to play against and beat. Martin has already begun the emphasis on this facet, benching a pair of players who came up lame in this regard in Carolina.
Furthermore, the five men back, no cheating approach enables a group breakout, rather than an individual one. This is important, because the DIY method when bringing the puck up ice is the Canadiens Achille's heel. How often has it been seen, that the Canadiens have simply thrown the puck towards the neutral zone and fight for possession? Or that Scott Gomez will need to reel back all the way inside his own blueline to get a head of steam.
Breakout passes should be one, two, three and tic-tac-toe - three passes to gain the opponents blueline. The requirements are pass option support down low by defensive partners, forwards who have not cheated too high up ice, and players who are keeping their feet moving at all times.
A particular Canadiens weak spot involves picking up passes off the boards in mid ice. Teams usually clog the middle knowing that every other winger apart from Brian Gionta, and less often Mike Cammalleri have worlds of trouble cradling anything off the boards. Opponents take the middle as a percentage play of sorts, knowing that the Canadiens failings will do them in.
With all players emerging from units of five together, options are increased and players aren't strung out all over the place. Players are actually in position to back one another up, make shorter passes and hit the opposing blueline together with speed. Conversely, they are also in better position should things break down. Additionally, such steps taken as one, facilitate line changes, as no one is caught too deep or too low.
Unit of five play is the essential in the success of any Canadiens plan. Without dedication to it, nothing mentioned above matters. Against the Capitals, who it seems can smell breakdowns at occurance, any deviation from group play will spell disater. If coach Martin cannot succeed in selling this system across the board, the Canadiens will be meat in no time.
Should Montreal manage to put all of the above together, the whole of it will enable more playing time in the Capitals' end, where they are most vulnerable.
A methodical two-man pursuit of the puck doesn't get any more essential than it does in the Washington zone. It is here, that if the Canadiens make the correct adjustments and mental tunings, games will be won.
The Capitals will do it to Markov, so the Canadiens must be prepared to lay a random and reckless punishing on Mike Green each time he handles the puck. The pursuit must overwhelm him like never before. Also key, if the Habs are going to beat up the boards but ease off at the net, it all falls apart. The Capitals defensemen must be worked and overworked. The motto for bringing a defender along with a forward to the net must be "two screens are better than one."
In working the boards and crease area to precision, the turnovers created will cause a great amount of cycling around the net, hopefully reducing the Canadiens' blueliners instinct to pinch ill-advisedly, as has been the case in many losses of late.
If the Canadiens apply the pressure as they should in the Washington end, with concentrated gusts to the crease, it could wreak havor on a defensive corps that is thin beyond the top three. Jose Theodore, or whatever goalie the Caps choose to employ for that matter, will be kept screened and occupied.
All goalies work better when they see shots, and no team telegraphs its intent like Montreal. In addition to the added crease busting, it is advised that they shoot more often at the ne from all anglest. Shots do not need to find corners, or come as cannon blasts, they simply need to be on net and working the goalie, wearing him down by number.
Last but hardly least, everything for Montreal could, and quite possibly will, be decided from behind the bench. Coach Martin has to sell the system that is not often bought into in whole, and enforce it until followed. Tasers might be required, but Martin has to be extremely alert in this series as to line matches. Washington works a shorter bench than most teams on a consistent basis, and any of six forward elements are options for double shifting.
Martin will need to align his matchups, think three lines ahead of time in terms of rolling, in regards to managing players such as Markov, Plekanec or Gionta against Alex Ovechkin. More than ever, he will have to comply, both home and away with what Bruce Boudreau throws over the boards.
As a side note, both teams have changed some since their last meeting. The Capitals made key additions at the trade deadline and Montreal are healthier than in previous meetings when they played without Markov twice, and the trio of Gomez, Gionta and Andrei Kostitsyn on the occassion of the Caps only regulation win. The addition of Dominic Moore has solidified a third line that now matches up better with the Capitals' third. Moore also brings more faceoff presence, a Montreal sorespot. An additional wrinkle is that the Capitals have not faced goalie Jaroslav Halak all season. After defeating the Russians at the Olympics, Halak can approach Ovechkin and this crew with confidence.
In saying that the Canadiens are capable of performing the tasks and trials mentioned herein, the devil's advocate somewhat doubts it entirely possible.
The little voice of reason has not been lost, and it remains that if Jacques Martin as coach of elite teams in Ottawa over the years could never figure how to take down the Maple Leafs in four playoff rounds, it is also equally doubtful that he understood how they continually defeated his teams.
And that's too bad, because it is that exact lesson that would come in quite handy now.
There was a thought of placing this at the top - this article could well have been subtitled "Five Things The Canadiens Won't Do, That Would Have Enabled Them to Beat the Caps!"
That said, Capitals in six close ones!
Such a result would not entirely be embarrassing to the team the Canadiens have been this season.
Then again, it is far from satisfactory.
If the Canadiens are to pull the wool, a unified team mindset, several tactical ploys and astute game planning wiould all be in order, and would each have to be executed to perfection to be successful.
The first order of the day for coach Jacques Martin, would be to get his troops minds around the Capitals and the team they are .
If in preparations for the series, there is a continuous focus that dwells too long and hard on all of the Capitals firepower and potential devastation, it will only serve to lessen the Canadiens' perceptions of themselves. Too much "all about them" and not enough focus on the Habs virtues will quickly gain the player's heads. No team beats another they are in awe of. If Montreal approaches games believing that the first order of business is to concern themselves with Capital limitation, then they are taking to the ice, mentally down 2-0.