Unfortunately with the Eastern Conference Semifinals beginning just two days after the New York Rangers eliminated the Ottawa Senators in Game 7 of the quarterfinals, time is limited on what I can bring you as far as preview material goes. But thankfully there are not many secrets to be unveiled in this Rangers – Capitals second round match-up, because these two clubs have become awfully familiar with each other in the postseason over the past four years.
In fact, the Rangers have reached the playoffs three out of the last four years, and in all three have met with Washington at some point. The first two times they squared off were in the opening round, with the Rangers being the bottom seed and the Capitals the top seed - the case both in 2009 and 2011. But this year the script has been flipped, as New York holds the first seed and home ice advantage, and not only that, but they will go head-to-head with the Capitals in the semifinals, not the quarterfinals.
Also, both teams have a much different appearance and swagger to them than they did a year ago. The Blueshirts are a team with more skill and firepower, while the Capitals play a completely different style under a new coach. This has altered strengths and weaknesses on both ends, and how these familiar foes will be approaching each other for Game 1 at Madison Square Garden on Saturday.
Here’s a position-by-position breakdown of the series....
Ah, the good old goaltending match-up. When all is said and done in the playoffs, it is always the goalies that make the greatest difference in a series. A team can only go as far as their goalie can carry them, and for the two teams being discussed here, their respective netminders have led them as far as the semifinals to this point.
Starting with Henrik Lundqvist, his performance throughout round one further proved why he should be this year’s Vezina Trophy winner as the League’s top goaltender. He allowed just 12 goals over the span of seven games, which works out to be a 1.70 GAA, and he also posted a .945 save percentage to go along with that. He completely stole Game 3 of the Ottawa series for his team, and managed to become a major storyline in the other three victories the Rangers earned as well. He is a man on a mission this season, and the fact that he’s been nominated for both the Vezina and Hart Trophies within a three-day span only motivates him more.
Right now, the sky is the limit when judging just how far Lundqvist can carry the team on his shoulders.
The guy in net for Washington, however, has garnered some attention of his own in these playoffs. Braden Holtby, just 22 years of age, was called upon by the Capitals to come in and take the starting job with both Michal Neuvirth and Tomas Vokoun sidelined with injuries. Obviously, heading into such a grand stage such as the playoffs in this League, the Capitals had no way of telling what they would get from this kid between the pipes against the defending Campion Boston Bruins in round one. Shockingly, though, the rookie came through with a 2.00 GAA and a .940 save percentage to lead the Caps past the second place B’s in seven games.
There’s no question that it will be a difficult challenge for Holtby to put up such numbers as the playoffs progress, but if he can, we’re in for quite the goaltending duel in this series.
While I don’t think anyone will argue that the advantage goes to Henrik Lundqvist because of experience and what not, odds are not going to faze Holtby because quite frankly, he’s proven that not very much does. We’re looking at a low-scoring, tightly played series with these two guys in net.
Both Lundqvist and Holtby were tremendous in the quarterfinals, but they received plenty of help from the defensive units in front of them. For the Rangers, defense is going to be more important than offense in this series. They don’t score all that much, we know that, but they can still find ways to win games if they defend those slim leads well. With the Capitals now a tighter defensive team than before under Dale Hunter, they prey on mistakes and turnovers. Smart defensive play that limits such mistakes for the Rangers will also limit Washington’s scoring chances in the process.
Plus, there are three guys by the names of Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin and Alexander Ovechkin (Ovechkin listed last for a reason) that the top two pairings will need to key in on. If they were able to contain the likes of Jason Spezza, Daniel Alfredsson and Milan Michalek in round one, they should apply similar strategies to the trio in Washington – only prepare for greater speed and intensity.
For Washington, defense, along with Holtby’s play in net, is what won them four games against the Bruins in the opening round. Boston was one of the more dangerous offensive teams in the NHL during the regular season because of their forecheck, but the Caps held them to just 15 goals in seven quarterfinal contests. Like John Tortorella, Dale Hunter has everyone on his squad focusing on defense first and chipping in on their side of the blue-line.
The way in which they defend the Rangers’ top two lines in this series will have a major impact on the outcome. That duty will lie in the hands of their top four, including Mike Green, Karl Alzner, Roman Hamrlik and John Carlson. If they begin to open up and show weaknesses, which I certainly think they will be prone to doing at some point, Holtby may not be as solid in net when getting peppered with many shots.
Hint, hint Rangers.
Offense is where the big question mark lies. The Rangers totaled just 14 goals in seven games in the Ottawa series, but still managed to win four of those seven games. The Senators are not as dangerous of an offensive team as the Capitals are, so depending on how the defense (combined with Henrik Lundqvist) performs in this series, the Rangers’ forwards may be called on a bit more often than they were in round one.
On the first line for New York, Brad Richards proved to be the playoff veteran that he is as the series progressed, and Carl Hagelin was definitely a difference maker in the games he wasn’t serving a suspension during. Where uncertainty lies on that line is on right wing, where Marian Gaborik scored just one goal in the quarterfinals. It bodes well for the Rangers that they were able to get past the first round without their top scorer from the regular season doing much of anything. But imagine if they can get him going again in this upcoming series against the Capitals? Gaborik is the potential difference maker in this best of seven if you ask me.
And then there’s the American line comprised of rookie Chris Kreider, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan, who were formed in Game 6 against Ottawa and took off from there. This was the Rangers’ most threatening line in those last two elimination games of that series, and likely will be again against the Capitals.
Similar to the Caps, the bottom two lines for New York serve more of a checking role, but can absolutely contribute on the offense as well. This is where the health of Brian Boyle comes into play. Boyle was the Rangers’ best forward before being concussed in Game 5 of the quarterfinals, but he hasn’t been well enough to return since. He skated in practice on Friday, but still, there’s no word on when he will be back in game-shape. This will be especially important if Brandon Dubinsky (lower body) misses time as well.
As previously mentioned, the Capitals are more of a checking team now than they were under Bruce Boudreau. It was for that club’s own good that Hunter altered their style of play for the better, but there’s always a downside to everything good. The Capitals are no longer the offensive powerhouse they once were, and do not put as many pucks in the net as we’ve seen in years past.
As a result, Alex Ovechkin no longer has the spotlight in Washington. In their series against the Bruins, Ovechkin averaged the lowest minutes played per game in the playoffs of his career. It’s simple: Ovechkin hasn’t exactly adapted to the change of style that Hunter has implemented, so the coach isn’t afraid to keep him on the bench in close games. At the same time, though, this has OV looking like he was shot out of a cannon every time he is out there, so like Gaborik, he is also a potential difference maker in this series. And I should also mention that he still led the Caps in scoring in round one, despite the shortage of ice time.
Aside from Ovechkin, Semin and Backstrom are the names to keep an eye on. But Washington also has the secondary veteran weapons in Jason Chimera, Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich to rely on. Between their offensive make-up and style of play, they are very similar to the Rangers, making this series a near perfect match.
If the Rangers play the game John Tortorella urges them to, which consists of gaining leads and then defending them, I think their chances of ousting the Capitals in five or six games and moving on to the Conference Finals are pretty good. However, each part of their game, in my opinion, needs to be brought up a notch in this series if they want to take down the Caps.
Either way, this will be a hell of a rivalry series to watch.
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