Star-gazing: Looking Ahead To The Capitals

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    Coming off the heels of two lopsided losses, the Maple Leafs are headed back home, where they will face the offensive firepower of the Washington Capitals.

    Seriously, how impressive has the Capitals rebuilding process been?

    Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom, Fleischmann, Fehr, Gordon, Green, Alzner, Lepisto, Schultz … all home-grown.

    Complement that with veterans like Fedorov, Nylander, Kozlov, Brashear, Laich, Poti … this is one of the deepest, most balanced teams around.

    Which means Saturday night’s tilt looks to be a definite challenge for the Leafs … and is guaranteed to be one heck of a fun game to watch. Break out the TiVo if you’ve got to be elsewhere Saturday eve, this is not one to be missed.

    And not just because of the chance to witness some of Washington’s star power. Despite Washington’s impressive roster, there are two factors, which cannot be ignored, that give the Leafs a significant chance to win this game:

    (1) Injuries

    (2) Jose Theodore

    Injuries

    Alex Semin, in 16 games this year, tallied 27 points. Despite missing 9 games, he is still 15th overall in league scoring as of this afternoon (Friday). However, he remains on IR with a shoulder injury, and no official timeframe has been given as to when he might be back.

    Mike Green, who had a breakout season last year and a hot start this year (16 pts in 18 gms), is also on IR with a shoulder injury … again with no timeframe provided for his return.

    Heart-and-soul winger (and underrated scorer) Chris Clark remains out with a stress fracture, and is expected to miss another 3 weeks. Sergei Fedorov (ankle) and Tom Poti (groin), meanwhile, are listed as questionable for the game against Toronto.

    See the full injury report at TSN

    What impact might these injuries have on Toronto’s chances? Plenty.

    Fedorov and Poti, if they play, will still be slowed by nagging effects of their injuries, and a lack of practice and game time, rendering them less of a factor as they usually would be.

    Ovechkin has been forced to do more on his own, without super-linemate Alex Semin. And for the most part, he’s done just fine. If — BIG IF — but if the Leaf defenders can find ways to isolate Ovechkin, they will have a shot at keeping the Caps offence in check. Of course, every team says that …

    Also, let’s not forget that with such a lengthy injury list, the Caps are dressing a number of minor league callups lately. Ron Wilson will need to coordinate his line changes to take advantage of their inexperience, in order to give the Leafs the best possible chance to win. This will not be an easy task as we can expect Ovechkin to log plenty of extra minutes in his teammates’ absence.

    The Theodore Factor

    I haven’t heard yet as to whether Theodore or Johnson gets the start on Saturday. I hate to say it, because he is still a very talented netminder, but if Theodore (.889 sv %, 3.08 GAA) is in the net, any team has a chance to beat the Caps. Their offence is reliable, but their goaltending (especially with Jose in net) has been anything but. He is still very quick, and has reflexes few can match, but his on-ice focus has to be questioned at times … not unlike former Leaf netminder Felix Potvin. No one doubted the ability, but the concentration was a concern that seemed to grow greater with each season.

    Since the Leafs have struggled of late, it is conceivable Bruce Boudreau may elect to go with Theodore for this one, and save Johnson for a run against more successful teams.

    X-Factors

    - The Capitals have scored 85 goals this year, and allowed 82. Toronto has scored 79 goals, and allowed 94. The better defensive effort will determine the outcome of this game.

    - Whether or not Tomas Kaberle is a healthy scratch for this game remains to be seen. If he is, look for Anton Stralman to be given a chance to step up in this one, especially on the PP.

    - Look for Ponikarovsky, Moore and Blake to remain together after their success (one of the only bright spots) in the game against Phoenix. If Poni can continue to drive to the net, this line should find some success against a weakened Caps defense corps that is missing both Poti and Green … especially considering that the Antropov line should continue to draw the opposition’s top d-pairing.

    Bottom Line

    Given the way the Leafs have played this season, with all the first period deficits and the third period comebacks, it is not unrealistic to expect Washington to jump to an early lead in this game, and for Toronto to stage yet another never-say-die effort in the third (past 2 games notwithstanding). I am guessing we will see a much more consistent effort from the Leafs in this game as Ron Wilson won’t let embarrassing efforts such as that in Phoenix go unaddressed.

    If Theodore gets the start, the Leafs will have a very good chance to at least force overtime, and escape from this offensive dynamo with at least one point. If Johnson gets the start, a win is still possible (on any given game day …), but also much more difficult given his relative successes (.911 sv %, 2.74 GAA) early this season.