If the Washington Capitals learned anything from last year’s first-round playoff upset, it is to not take opponents for granted. This is a lesson the Caps will need to bring to the table as they face the No. 8 seed New York Rangers.
The Rangers represent a serious danger to the Caps’ chance to advance closer to a Stanley Cup Championship—a feat the team has never achieved—while this match up represents a chance at redemption for the Rangers who blew a 3-1 series lead against the Caps in 2009.
There is no refuting the Capitals has an offensive style of play and fare well in that style, but is it enough to shut down the Rangers? Out of the four times the teams met this season the Rangers took home the victory in three outscoring the Caps 15-1 in those games and 18-6 overall.
Not to mention the Rangers have managed to completely shut down Caps’ scoring powerhouse Alex Ovechkin. Against the Rangers, Ovechkin only tallied two assists and had a minus-1 rating. But any time Ovi is on the ice he presents a threat. And even though his productivity decreased from last season, he still leads the Caps in points with 85 (32 goals and 53 assists) and has Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin to look to for offensive help.
The Rangers offense delivers no true superstar. Many might see this as a disadvantage, but really the lack of a superstar has allowed the Rangers to gain depth throughout the lineup. Yes the team is filled with young players and rookies, eight of which never played in a post season game, but whether the Blueshirts have the top line or the fourth line on the ice they are constantly creating scoring opportunities.
A big shortcoming in the Rangers’ game is having Ryan Callahan sidelined due to a fractured leg. Callahan has been a force to be reckoned with this season and the team will not only miss his productivity in the post season, but also his leadership.
In the defensive zone the Rangers have do-it-all defensemen Dan Girardi who has sacrificed his body all year by blocking 236 shots (leads the NHL), feisty Michael Sauer who has a plus 20 rating and Marc Staal who has significantly upped his offensive game.
The Caps have two-time Norris Trophy candidate Mike Green, who is an all-around player with a strong ice presence. Unfortunately for the Caps, Green has been out since Feb. 25 with a concussion. But Coach Bruce Boudreau said Green will be available for game one giving the Caps a boost in their defense.
When it comes to goaltenders,the slight advantage goes to the Rangers. The Capitals’ major weakness is and has been for some time its goaltending. The Caps have three young netminders they can turn to in the playoffs; the conundrum is, who the team is going to pick.
Like any player, Semyon Varlamov , Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby have their strengths and weaknesses. Varlamov is the best athlete and has postseason experience. The problem is he can let in some cheap goals. Neuvirth has played the majority of the season and is more technically sound. In addition, he won back-to-back Calder Cups with Hershey, but he’s never played a playoff game at the NHL level. Holtby is on a hot streak and is a better puck handler, but he has no playoff experience on any level and is still a young player learning the game.
Even with their up-and-downs, all three goalies have combine to lead the Caps to a 48-23-11 record, showing they are capable of solid goaltending.
Rangers netminder Henrik Lunqvist is coming off a season in which he established new career highs with a .923 save percentage, a 2.28 goals-against average and a NHL-best 11 shutouts. Lundqvist has played in the Rangers last 26 games and in order to stand a chance in the playoffs he will have to play on little rest because as much as the Rangers have depth in the offensive zone, the team lacks depth in the goalie department. Meaning, Lundqvist is the only option for the Rangers to turn to in high-pressure situations.
Both teams have something to play for. The Caps want to shed the image of a team that can’t perform in the post season, while the Rangers look to further develop the team as a cohesive unit through the playoff experience. The Rangers gritty, hard-hitting style of play which the Caps counter with an aggressive, offensive power will make this match up one to watch.
Prediction: Rangers in six.