Saturday, March 13, 2010

Chicago-Washington Preview

So tomorrow afternoon (or night for me) should be one of the best games of the season.

Forget that it's on NBC, which can't cover hockey well despite the visually spectacular product. Forget that Mike Emrick uses passive voice way too much. Forget that Pierre McGuire gets way too caught up in star-love and stands too close to people. Forget that Mike Milbury isn't really much of an analyst at all (just look at his management and coaching track record). Forget that you have work to do for Monday.

Just watch the game with your undivided attention.

The Capitals are 45-14-9 for 99 points in 68 games; the Blackhawks are 44-17-5 for 93 points in 68 games. The Capitals lead the NHL in offense by a wide margin, at 266 goals; the Blackhawks are tied for second at 220, with San Jose and Vancouver (which has played one more game). The Capitals are the league's second-best road team (trailing San Jose); the Blackhawks are the second-best home team (trailing Washington). On the ice will be talents like Alex Ovechkin, Patrick Kane, Nicklas Backstrom, Jonathan Toews, Marian Hossa, Alexander Semin, Patrick Sharp, Mike Green, Duncan Keith, Joe Corvo, Brian Campbell, and I'm still forgetting people. In short, these teams are deep, young, and can hang with you any way you want.

Things to look out for:

Last week on the NHL on NBC, Cristobal Huet laid an egg. Not like those brilliant Sidney Crosby gold-medal-goal-celebration-photoshops that you saw in the Puck Daddy photoshop contest, but he allowed 4 goals on 7 shots to the Red Wings. Chicago's 2-0 lead suddenly went to a 4-2, and by the end 5-4, deficit. Antti Niemi may start for Joel Quenneville with that in mind.
Meanwhile, Jose Theodore looks like he'll get to face Chicago. Semyon Varlamov, while getting better with each start, is nowhere near his terrific November and December form. Bruce Boudreau has made it clear that he's alternating goalies for starts, and with Theodore playing very well for most of this season, the starting job in the playoffs is his to lose.

Since returning from the Olympics, neither teams' Olympians have shown much in the way of energy or flashiness. Alex Ovechkin, while putting up multiple points in three straight games to break out of a slump, still hasn't shown any inclination to take the goal-scoring or points races by the throat. Nicklas Backstrom hasn't put up a big game either. Tomas Fleischmann, since being scratched, has two goals in two games, which is decent, but he was a minus player in both. Not helpin', Flash. At the very least, the Caps' PP has been clicking better and better each game, but the PK has still been inconsistent. The Hawks' special teams are both top-10, which means that the Caps will need to play disciplined hockey, something over the last few games they've done well.

What will help the Hawks immensely is that they can get the matchups they want. While Bruce Boudreau generally fiddle around with line-matching, Joel Quenneville does (it certainly helps that, like Detroit, Chicago can match power against power, with Selke candidate Toews on the Hawks' top line and Norris favorite Keith on the top pairing). But down the middle against DC, you either get a great faceoff man or a strong offensive line. And when they play their game, the wingers are unstoppable.

Bruce Boudreau will need to play an aggressive defense in this one, and dress his best skaters against the fast, young, hungry, talented Hawks. That's a tall order, but one that if any team, the Caps can match. They're more talented up front than Chicago, they've got better goalies, and they're, honestly, more ready for this type of game. It's time for them to snap out of a funk in which they've won half of their last 10 games (as opposed to 7 for the Hawks).

Prediction: Ovie and Sasha both score twice, while Nicklas Backstrom and Eric Belanger have nice games. The decisive goal, though, comes from an unexpected source: John Carlson. A late empty-netter seals the deal. Caps 6, Hawks 4.

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