The National Hockey League's 2nd season, and some -- would argue only season is finally here.
Tonight and Friday night at Verizon Center -- the Washington Capitals will embark on what they hope will be a two-month odyssey towards the "Holy Grail."
Will they get it done? I don't think so -- but can they? Of course, but only if....
**They win Game 1 at home (Wednesday night, 7:30 PM) and do something they were not able to do against the Montreal Canadiens or the New York Rangers, in the opening round each of the last two years.
The Caps are 2-2 at Verizon Center in Game 1's over the last three seasons, beating Philadelphia and Pittsburgh for the two W's.
As a side note, I think it is even more important then ever for the Caps to win Game 1, for true, tested belief in their new approach. Also, it would certainly give un-tested goaltender Michael Neuvirth even more confidence as the Caps hope he is answer for a long run. In addition - Caps are (7-9) at home in the postseason the last three years, and (4-5) on the road. You can't take for granted that you are going to comeback in every series, like they did against the Rangers two seasons ago. The Caps have blown 2-0 leads (Pittsburgh) as much as they have bounced back from a 2-0 deficit (NYR).
**The Caps will win if Mike Green can be close to 100% (he insisted he was and got a little chippy with me on Tuesday when I asked) and stays out of the penalty box, while being the Mike Green we know - and haven't seen much of the last two postseasons on offense. Last year, Green did have 3 assists, but spent 12 minutes of the series in the penalty box, including an ill-fated frustration penalty that was a back breaker. Against Pittsburg, Green had 4 assists, but was awful defensively and didn't really seem like a big factor offensively.
Washington needs Green more then ever, with newly acquired Dennis Wideman out for at least the first round, and with Tom Poti possibly out for the first round -- depending on how things shake out and at the very least, very rusty.
The Caps will win if, Alex Semin decides that the playoffs start on April 13th and not on July 13th. Semin -- simply has to score a few goals against Henrik Lundqvist. Semin has not scored a playoff goal in the Capitals last two series, with only 2 assists vs. Montreal and he did have 6 assists against Pittsburgh. Here's the good news, he did have a monster series against the Rangers, with 5 goals and 3 assists two years ago. Semin also HAS to stay out of the penalty box, as he's drawn 28 penalty minutues in 28 career post season games. Semin needs to be a scorer, a finisher in this series - especially because he will be paired with Jason Arnott on the 2nd line.
Those are the mostly obvious points to everyone (I think) but here are a few things that might not stand out first in your mind....
The Caps will win if the power play gives them something, but doesn't cost them in the most back-breaking of ways. That is easy to say, but the task is daunting with the Rangers coming in ranked 6th in league on the road for penalty kill and the "blue-shirts" scored 11 short-handed goals (4th in NHL). Youngster Brandon Prust had 5 SHG on the season, with another Brandon, as in Dubinsky scoring 2 SHG's. Overall the Rangers had a + 13 Rating on Special teams (2nd in NHL) during the season. The Caps by the way, allowed 5 short-handed goals this year.
The Capitals power-play has been a mystery for much of the season, scoring only 46 goals with the man advantage, tied for 15th in the NHL. Washington's short-handed play was fabulous, ranking 2nd in the entire NHL killing off 85.6% of penalties.
The Caps will win if they score first, if you factor in the regular season numbers as a base for the arguement. Washington was 25-4-5 when scoring first, and at the same time, they were 23-19-5.
The Caps will win if they lead after the first, again based on the regular season -- the Capitals were 21-1-5 when leading after the first twenty minutes.
The Caps will win if Karl Alzner and John Carlson do what they have been doing as a top pair. With Green likely limited minutes wise, and possibly even paired with John Erskins - while Jeff Schultz and Scott Hannan comprise the other pairing -- the young guns need to be the difference. Alzner has 15 minutes of playoff experience, (Game 7 last year), but has always been a very good two way player for Hershey. Meanwhile, Carlson played in all 7 games against Montreal (1 G, 3 A) and was smart in terms of not taking reckless penalties like Green did.
The Caps will win because Matt Hendricks was not on the team last year, and he is this year. Hendricks had 9 goals and 16 assists in the regular season, but is a smart agitator -- who contributes on the penalty kill -- and makes up one of the best fourth lines in all of hockey, paired with Boyd Gordon and Matt Bradley. The Rangers agitator Sean Avery has been scratched for at least game 1, and hasnt' played a lot down the stretch -- so Hendricks might be the most important 'niche' player in the series.
OFFICIAL PREDICTION - CAPS in 7.