BROSSARD, Que. – The Montreal Canadiens are hoping that Columbus forward R.J. Umberger was right when he said the Washington Capitals play the “wrong way” to win in the playoffs, but they’re not counting on it.
The Canadiens will be decided underdogs when they face the top-seeded Capitals in the opening round of their NHL Eastern Conference quarter-final on Thursday night in Washington (TSN, 7 p.m. ET).
The Capitals finished 33 points ahead of the Canadiens in the regular season and scored 101 more goals. The 70 points amassed by Montreal’s top scorer Tomas Plekanec would place him fifth on the Capitals.
But for all their firepower, led by Alex Ovechkin’s 50 goals and 109 points, the Capitals are perceived by some as vulnerable to a playoff upset because of their loose defensive play and lack of a top-notch goaltender.
Umberger said as much in an interview with the Columbus Dispatch after a recent game – that Washington’s goaltending is suspect and that they lack a shut-down defenceman.
“They play the wrong way,” said Umberger. “They want to be moving all the time. They float around in their zone, looking for breakaways and odd-man rushes. A good defensive team is going to beat them (in the playoffs). If you eliminate your turnovers and keep them off the power play, they’re going to get frustrated because they’re in their zone a lot.”
The Canadiens, who didn’t lock up a playoff spot until last Saturday night, admit that strong goaltending and a sound defensive game are their only hope of beating Washington.
But they weren’t about to disrespect a team that went 54-15-13 this season.
“What (Umberger) was saying is they’re all offence, all run-and-gun, try to score as many goals as you can, while the old motto is that defence wins championships,” said Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges. “But when you have firepower like they do, they have the ability to let in a few more goals because they’re probably going to score a few more themselves.
“We have to be prepared for that. They’ll be firing everything at us and we have to be prepared to play a strong defensive game – team defence more than anything.”
Montreal forward Mike Cammalleri said it is hard to find fault in an opponent that won so many games in such spectacular fashion.
“I don’t buy into that,” he said of the Umberger comments. “What’s important for a group to do is find an identity and play that way.
“You win or lose being yourself. Washington’s a lot that way. They have to play to their strengths and they are what they are. It allows them to be highly successful. And I don’t know that if I was not in a playoff spot I would be making comments about the best team in the league.
“It’s good for the game too. Who wants to watch Alex Ovechkin dump and chase all night?”
Despite the disparity in talent and goal production, the Canadiens were 2-1-1 against Washington this season doing precisely as Umberger suggested – playing sound team defence and forcing turnovers. That is no secret, but it is easier said than done against a team that went 30-4-7 after Ovechkin was named captain on Jan. 5.
Cammalleri said the Canadiens seem to be at their best against the top clubs.
“I remember us playing some games where we went in short-manned, playing the big, powerful Washington Capitals, and you had that band of brothers mentality where we’re going to scratch and claw our way to victory,” he said. “We kind of willed our way to a couple of wins against them, I thought.
“You can expect a lot of the same this series. They’re supposed to win. They’re the favourites, who everyone expects to win – except the guys in this room – so it will be fun.”
One who knows the Capitals better than most is defenceman Hal Gill, who played for Pittsburgh in a memorable battle with the Caps in last year’s playoffs before going on to a Stanley Cup.
“They have a good team and we’ll have to play well to beat them, but it’s a team that can be taken advantage of,” he said. “We just have to do the little things and we’ll be all right.
“We have a good team to match up against them. It’s not always the firepower, but sustaining pressure in their end.”
Washington had the league’s top power play with a 25.2 per cent success rate. Montreal struggled late in the season but was still second-best at 21.8 per cent. The Caps had far more chances, however, and scored 22 more power-play goals overall.
Coach Jacques Martin, as usual, would not say who his starting goalie will be even though Jaroslav Halak clearly took over the No. 1 job down the stretch from Carey Price. However, he may not need much prompting to go back to Price, who played all four games against Washington this season, if Halak falters.
It appears that defencemen Ryan O’Byrne and forward Tom Pyatt will be the odd men out when the starting roster is announced. Both stayed on the ice well after practice ended. Slow-footed but hard-shooting Marc-Andre Bergeron will likely team with top defenceman Andrei Markov, as he did in the last week of the season.
The CBC has opted to air the Ottawa-Pittsburgh and Vancouver-Los Angeles series, so for the first time, the Canadiens will not be on network TV in the playoffs. Their games will be on TSN and RDS.
When asked about it, a team spokesman only said: “We respect the CBC’s decision.”