- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 26, 2009

The perception of the Washington Capitals before the postseason began was of an offense-first club that might not have the chops defensively or in net to make a playoff run that would match expectations.

If Simeon Varlamov continues his current level of play, the questions about goaltending have been answered. Beyond him, the biggest surprise has been how well the Caps have played defensively against the New York Rangers.

“I think after the season we realized that if we’re going to go anywhere we’d have to tighten it up,” defenseman Shaone Morrisonn said. “I think everybody, from the ‘D’ to the forwards to the great goaltending we’ve had, everybody has tightened it up and been doing a great job. They have some great players over there, and it is a big task so it takes everybody on the ice being committed.”

The Caps have yielded seven goals in five games, far below their regular-season average of 2.93 per contest, which was tied for 19th in the league. They also have allowed 24 or fewer shots in four of the five contests.

Varlamov, a 20-year-old rookie, has been a breakout star and is the NHL playoff leader in goals-against average (0.76) and save percentage (.969), but he hasn’t had the workload that Washington’s goaltenders typically dealt with in the regular season.

“We’re getting good goaltending, and it starts from there,” defenseman John Erskine said. “We have confidence in him, and it gives the whole team confidence. If there is a breakdown, we know there is somebody back there to stop it.”

While Mike Green has earned plaudits for his record-breaking offensive exploits, the rest of the team’s defenders are generally considered nondescript. Tom Poti has been the team’s best defensive defenseman since signing as a free agent; Morrisonn, Erskine and Milan Jurcina have performed better this postseason.

The biggest addition has been Brian Pothier, who returned late in the season from a concussion and subsequent complications. Pothier was a healthy scratch in Game 1 but has been a steady presence and earned an increased workload.

“I think they’re underrated,” forward Brooks Laich said of the defense. “The way we play, so much of their success comes from us as forwards. When we as forwards, sometimes we’re guilty of not backchecking too hard, but when we do put back pressure it allows them to stand up and make plays. … I think Mike gets a lot of credit, but the rest of our defense corps is very underrated.”

Another aspect of the team’s improved work in its own end is an improved penalty kill. The Caps yielded two power-play goals in a Game 1 loss, but the Rangers are 0-for-18 in four games since.

“Even the first game, one of the [power-play] goals was on a bad line change,” Poti said. “I think the difference is we’re playing smarter and we’re trying to let the goalie see the shots. If he sees the shots, he’s going to make the save. We’ve been trying to block out and take away the time and space and make the smart play.”

Part of the Caps’ success is also rooted in the Rangers’ failures. New York has struggled to score all season, and the Rangers’ power play was 29th in the league. Despite having players like Scott Gomez, Nikolai Zherdev and Chris Drury - and the addition of an offensive-minded coach in John Tortorella - the Rangers continue to flounder with the extra man.

“Your power play is a microcosm of your game because your top players are on that power play,” Tortorella said. “That’s a huge problem we have right now, both five-on-five and the power play. We simply have to get more, and time is running out here for our top guys to get something accomplished.”