All you football-only diehards, sorry to disappoint you, but I'm gonna take a detour here. Been covering this Caps/Flyers series pretty closely and just figured I'd clear out my head and notebook on the offday before driving back up to Philly for Game 4 tomorrow.
I love that Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau is sticking to his guns in terms of his overall philosophy - rolling four lines, trying to play up-tempo, attacking hockey with an aggressive forecheck, allowing his defensemen to jump up in the play, letting the kids play. But it's also very dangerous this time of year to get too married to your personnel, to continue to view everything through the prism of that glorious 37-17-7 run, to believe that since it happened then it'll happen now. Were the 2007-2008 Caps really a 50 win team, as that record under Boudreau would point to if for a full season? Are they really so good and so deep as to be beyond the need for serious midseries repairs?
I've seen many, many,. many an NHL team lose it's identity, fast, in the postseason, and that's clubs way more experienced than this. Often, it takes a hard re-think, and sweeping changes, to usher in a transformation of sorts, and a new aura. You can't just assumed you'll get that potent power play back without altering the five-man units, or that your best player will just become the best player in this mini-series regardless of how effectively the opposition is matching up with him.
This Caps team became such a great story precisely because they were overachievers. They were confident and buoyant and played over their heads based on emotion and savvy coaching and young guys feeding off one another and an ubber-positive vibe. But that's no longer the case. The regular season is over, long over now, and you can no longer argue that goalie Cristobal Huet still has that certain mojo working, or the entire team for that matter. What worked against Atlanta and Tampa and the like during that 11-1 run ain't necessarily going to get it done against a Philly team that is now more confident and looser than the Caps, not to mention more physical and effective.
I fully appreciate how much credit this staff deserves for righting this ship and stabilizing this franchise, and to me there's no doubt Boudreau should get the Adams Trophy as coach of the year for what he did from Thanksgiving through early April. But the differences between playoff hockey and the regular season cannot be overstated. I worry that if he is truly as rigid in regards to his lineup as he said he would be following Game 3 that by the time he gets around to making major adjustments it will already be too late.
He blanched when asked about replacing Huet. I'd make the move, ASAP, for reasons I presented in the paper today. It's not like you're turning to the usual back-up here. Not even close. I tried to push Boudreau about adding Brooks Laich - whose screen led to one power play goal with the second PP unit and who scored late on a redirection to the top of the crease - to the top unit, and the coach rebuffed the notion, pointing to how great the first unit was for 40 games. Again, that wasn't against this Flyers team every night, not under the glare of the postseason, not with the season dangling now.
To me Backstrom and Fedorov are redundant - both man the halfwall and fill a similar role. I put Laich in for Backstrom and force him to get in goalie Martin Biron's face (when the Caps have pressed the smallish goalie he's looked very beatable - they just aren't getting nearly enough traffic or pucks to net). Plant Laich in the crease and the Flyers finally have to pull a forward lower in the circles, and get the defenseman closer to the crease. It opens up space for Green and Ovechkin on the point - and they make this thing go - and gives them more opportunities for the back door weakside plays as well, which Philly has keyed on taking away (and with no presence around the net, all the easier to do so).
Backstrom is struggling bigtime, and no shame in that. It happens to rookies in the playoffs. But he's being asked to do a ton, too. Taking a backseat on the PP could help refocus him at even strength. Boudreau seems married to his lines, but Kozlov and Backstrom have been passengers on the tip unit. I break it up, pronto, and try Fedorov with Ovechkin and maybe even Laich on the right side. Again, he could retrieve the puck - it's gonna take dump and chase to beat that Philly trap - and that's not Kozlov. Laich in front of the net makes Ovechkin's shot all the more deadly.
I think they need to infuse a new chemistry if possible and Fedorov should feed off the promotion. Backstrom can take a turn trying to breathe life into Semin, who save for that lethal release of his on a few wrist shots from the high slot has been very poor (his desire to compete has long been questioned by scouts and GMs, the one thing keeping him from being a true star in the league). You can slot Kozlov here on the second line if you must, and I guess there's no place else to put him cuz he won't fit with your checking line or fourth line. (Call me old school, but again, I'd consider sitting him and putting Cooke with this unit, and bringing Kozlov back in Game 5 might really light a fire under him)..
While the third line has been so-so, the Donald Brashear led fourth line deserves more minutes. Go back and look at their goals in this series. It's all textbook, simple, playoff hockey. Brashear just goes to the net in Game 1. Bradley wins a puck in the corner on a dump, draws to Flyers and Steckel's alone in the slot (and he attacks Biron's suspect glove hand high, something the Caps stunningly have gotten away from). Then in Game 3 Brashear is awesome behind the net, using that big frame to shield the puck and draw a forward deep, then finds Fehr at the top of the crease with space.
That's how you're going to beat the Flyers. That's how to exploit the underbelly of their third defensive pair, who get caught flatfooted in the cycle and make bad decisions under pressure with the puck.
When defenseman Mike Green is by far your best offensive thrust and Brashear is your most effective forwards, well, you've got problems my friend and it's time for big changes.
Also, Ovechkin needs to get looks against defensemen other than Timonen (and his injury could prove huge if it keeps him out of the lineup). Put Ovechkin with Gordon or Steckel as his center sometimes and give it a go. Give him more shifts, but demand that each shift be much shorter, not the 90-second marathons we've seen.
Rigidity can be crippling in a series, and simply stating that players need to battle harder to overcome the punishment they are receiving isn't enough, either. Tactical decisions and match-ups define the very essence of playoff hockey. Scotty Bowman, the best ever, was never afraid to tinker - he was also something of a genius at this stuff and it would unfair to try to compare anyone to him. But lines are made to be shuffled, and when I covered the Wings Scotty would often use 12-15 different combinations in the opening period of a playoff game ... and that's even when things are going good. It forces the opposition to react, and breaks up matchups that favor them. It gets them wondering and guessing at what look is coming next. Now, the Caps don't have to go to those extremes, but opening the game with a reworked top line would be a start.
As for the defense, the idea that Milan Jurcina is somehow a lock to play baffles me, and while I think Steve Eminger may well be another first round bust, I can't believe he isn't one of the six best options amid this group, especially with Schultz ailing. Erskine adds grit but he's struggled mightily too, and this is when issues in your defense really come to life. (Pairing Erskine and Jurcina together on the PK surprised me as well, that's a scary combination. The Caps need to add a top three defender with a nasty streak to take the next step, but that's not happening now so I'm giving Eminger a shot and hope that he keeps his feet moving and makes simple plays with the puck. (With Schultz out he's probably gonna play regardless. I know the Caps didn't want to call up Josef Boumedienne from the minors for fear he would be a waiver claim, but I also know he has skill and flair with the puck and plenty of experience and I say you gamble that he doesn't get picked up, because again you can't convince me he isn't one of their top six blueliners right now. And if he gets claimed, then so be it, but what have you got to lose now?)
In the end, this team has turned the corner and will be a playoff contender for years to come. It's been a marvelous rise, and it doesn't have to end. If it does, the Caps still deserve all the credit in the world for even getting here, and the experience these kids are getting on the fly will pay big dividends down the road. They are heading in the right direction, and I'll be very interested to see what new wrinkles, if any, are revealed Thursday night.