For the second time in three years the Washington Capitals open the NHL postseason against the New York Rangers, an old Patrick division rival. Of the first five playoff series Alexander Ovechkin and the rebuilt Caps have contested since first qualifying for the postseason together in 2008, four have come against old Patrick foes.
Correspondingly, those bitter rivalries have been freshly renewed by the showdowns. That’s how hockey hatred is developed. In the sorta old days, you first had to best your Patrick foes in divisional play before advancing toward Eastern conference supremacy. There is a bit of that feeling to all these Patrick division springtime reunions, albeit spread out over a couple of seasons.
The hero of the Caps’ game 7 triumph of 2009, Sergei Fedorov, is no longer in the NHL, and many of the names from that spirited series have changed: just eight Rangers from then still wear a blueshirt today, and one of them — Ryan Callahan — won’t play this time around due to a fractured ankle he suffered while blocking a Zdeno Chara slapshot late in the regular season. But while many of the names have changed since 2009, the allure of this matchup doesn’t. It’s a heritage matchup, and as such, it’s special.
This is a one-versus-eight matchup wherein the difference in talent is marginal, and the MoJo might just be with the underdogs on Broadway: An intangible to this series is that the Rags administered two of the worst beatings the Caps endured this season, 7-0 in Madison Square Garden December 12 and 6-0 at Verizon Center on February 25. But both of those blowouts occurred prior to the dramatic roster alterations made by general manager George McPhee at the NHL trade deadline on February 28, when he secured a difference-making second line center in Jason Arnott and an impact two-way rearguard in Dennis Wideman. Wideman, like Callahan, is out for the entire series with injury.
McPhee’s moves not only addressed glaring vulnerabilities on his roster, but they seem to have ushered in a dramatic change in the atmosphere enveloping the team. The Capitals played their best hockey of the season subsequent to the change in personnel. OFB’s young guns take a closer look:
Is this 2009 all over again? The Caps are again one of the top teams in the East, again they are ready to go for playoff redemption, and again they are playing the New York Rangers. While the team is much different than the one which played a grueling seven game series against the Rangers just two short years ago, there is a lot that is the same about the series.
Again the second line is run by a hardened veteran with significant playoff experience, except instead of it being Sergei Fedorov it is Jason Arnott. Again Washington has a large question mark in between the pipes, except this time it involves two younger goalies and not Jose Theodore. Finally, the Caps yet again have to figure out Henrik Lundqvist and prevent him from being the lynchpin, series-stealer of the showdown.
In fact, the way the team attacks the net is going to determine, I think, whether Lundqvist is able to push the series to six or seven games. Two years ago the Caps settled for perimeter shots against the Rangers netminder, and as a result struggled to score more than three goals in four of the seven games. It was only once they made the commitment to crash the net late in the series that they really broke through the BlueShirt Wall.
Even two years later, the strategy the Caps are going to have to play has not changed either. Neil Greenberg of RMNB and Washington Post fame recently brought to light some of Lundqvist’s more astonishing numbers. Now take scoring chances for what they are worth, but the Rangers’ King has a .974 save percentage against shots from the so-called perimeter. If you extrapolate that over 100 shots, Lundqvist would only let in two goals. That right there says it all and says a lot about how the Caps can win the series. Books Laich, Mike Knuble and all of the other net crashers better be ready to set up shop in blue paint come Wednesday night, or be prepared for a long evening and another dreaded long series.
On the other side of the ice the Caps have to prevent the Rangers from, you guessed it, scoring down low on the doorstep. Lets take a trip in the “way-back machine” to the series two years ago against the Penguins. We all remember watching Sidney Crosby bang home goal after goal after goal from the side of net. Down low is the jackpot zone in the playoffs; take that away and you make it very hard for a team to score.
Now the Rangers don’t have a Sidney Crosby or anything close to that level of impact player on their team, but they do crash the net very well. Whichever young Capitals’ goalie gets the call — and they both might — he is still going to have to stop the shots in crunch time, while the defense is going to have to help eliminate second and third chances for the Rangers’ gang attack on the cage. It is up to the defensive pairings to take away New York’s lane to the net and clear out the crease.
With any playoff series, it comes down to a series of ifs. If the Caps can drive the net and force doorstep chances and if the defense can keep the Rangers from setting up camp in and around the blue paint, then the Caps have a realistic shot at a relatively short series. Those are two huge questions though, and the feeling I get is the team may struggle to do both consistently. As a result, I’d be prepared for a long, tough and physical series.
Since we’re past the point of no return on selecting first-round opponents, I’m looking at the several positive things that could come out of this series, provided the Caps win in 5 or 6 games.
The Capitals can play physically, but they usually don’t do it by choice and it hasn’t been their style in the past. But it’s how you win in the playoffs, and playing the Rangers is going to force the Caps into this habit immediately. New York is also most likely to keep the Capitals focused out of any plausible first round opponent, considering the Capitals have something to prove. I will also say this — the Rangers’ matchup definitely favors a more Braden Holtby-style goalie in net (although I don’t think he will be called up) because he’s so territorial about the crease and, as Andrew pointed out, the Rangers like to crash the net.
Finally, although much has been made of the Rangers missing Ryan Callahan, Callahan accounted for only two of the Rangers’ 18 goals this season against the Capitals. He only has three points total (yes, that includes the two goals) in the series this season. Of course, any team is going to miss a caliber player, but he hasn’t been particularly lethal against the Capitals this year when it comes to showing up on the scoreboard.
Jimmy Hascup, an outside point of view:
[Hascup currently writes for SB Nation NY and has covered the Rangers for multiple outlets. He has followed the team his whole life and knows what helps them succeed. He has been brave enough to defend his Blue Shirts on OFB and gives us his keys to beating the Capitals.]
1- Under John Tortorella, the Rangers have bought into his system and have formed a team identity that’s admittedly not flashy but makes them a squad that’s very hard to play against. They are hardworking, throw their bodies around, aren’t afraid to sacrifice to block shots and are expected to play in both ends of the ice.
2 – The second key for the Rangers to win this series is getting pucks deep and working beneath the goalline. Sounds simple and boring, but it’s when the Rangers do that that they’re most successful.
3 – Henrik Lundqvist. Plain and simple, if Lundqvist is on his game, he can win the series for the Rangers.
4 – Slowing down Alex Ovechkin. The tandem of Marc Staal-Dan Girardi has slowed Alex Ovechkin down to just two assists in the four games played, clearly frustrating him the past two games because they’ve played physically and been able limit his space. I don’t expect him to have a quiet series – and it will be harder for Tortorella to match them against Ovechkin when they’re playing on the road.
5 – Scoring from all lines. The way Marian Gaborik has played this season, any scoring from him is icing on the cake, so I can’t make him a key to the series. The fact is, this team has received contributions from all over this season (and lines have been interchangeable) – five players with 20-plus goals – and will need at least the top-three lines rolling because it makes them that much harder to match up against.