The Washington Capitals and New York Rangers will meet in the second round of the playoffs and they certainly know each other well. No teams have played each other more in the post-season over the last seven years than the Caps and Blueshirts. The Rangers took out the Capitals in the second round in 2012 and did the same thing in the first round in 2013. Both encounters went to Game Seven.
Determining what that means for this season could be tricky. At the outset, the Rangers look like the favourites. They’re rested, having not played since Friday, and they won the President’s Trophy. They have the better team on paper, in theory at least, and have the better goaltender. The Rangers also took apart the Capitals three out of four times during the regular season, doing it twice at the Verizon Center.
And the Rangers are already practicing to handle Alex Ovechkin, Washington’s biggest offensive weapon. They’ve been trying to find a way to contain him on the power play in particular, where he scored 25 goals during the regular season, and they’re using the Islanders as a good example. Long Island didn’t let Ovie get a power play goal over 13 chances in their first round series. They must’ve done something right.
Everything in Washington starts with Ovechkin, as you know. He had 53 goals in the regular season. His line, which Joel Ward and Nicklas Backstrom, came up with six goals and nine helpers against the Islanders in the first round. They are a powerhouse and they will have to be handled if the Rangers expect any kind of success.
The second line for the Caps usually consists of Jason Chimera, Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov. This trio had 11 points against Long island and can generate that solid secondary scoring everyone’s talking about. If the first line is contained or doesn’t click well for some reason, Washington has a sturdy backup plan. They won’t put up huge numbers, but they can do the job.
Another issue with the forwards is their ability to jump into the fray physically. The Capitals can be and have been a big hitting team. Ovie had 31 hits against the Islanders and he’ll run around like a house on fire if he feels in the groove. The Rangers will have to handle his physical presence. Tom Wilson had 22 hits and Chimera had 21 against the Islanders, so there’s more physicality to worry about for New York.
But the Rangers, naturally, have answers. Mats Zuccarello is a problem area because he’s out indefinitely with an “upper body injury” from Game Five. That means some shuffling is in order, which likely means Martin St. Louis will see more time. That’s not a bad thing given the rough and tumble nature of the second round. He’s got the experience and the ability to prove a linchpin for the Rangers.
New York counts on a four-line attack and that’s likely what they’ll still serve up for the Capitals. Rick Nash had four points against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round, while centre Derick Brassard had three goals. St. Louis had just a point, but with the promotion to the upper levels of the roster he could see more ice and more net.
The Rangers were also able to bank on the line of Derek Stepan, Chris Kreider and J.T. Miller. They had a combined five points against the Penguins, three of which were Stepan’s. They have the right balance to handle big game situations and New York seems ready to put them in more.
The Capitals got lucky in terms of injuries with defencemen and that’s helped them a great deal. Mike Green, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson all saw at least 72 regular season games. Tim Gleason is the sixth member of the top six and he’s also been a great fit, having been acquired earlier in the year.
The point here is that this is a cohesive, well-travelled group. They have things sorted out. The Capitals allowed just 2.4 goals per game in the regular season and they’ve maintained the same pace in the post-season thus far, holding the Islanders to just 14 goals in seven games. With Orpik and Carlson serving as a shutdown pair and everyone else playing their part, this is an intimidating group.
The Rangers, meanwhile, had the unenviable task of taking down Evgeni Malkin and Sidney Crosby in the first round. We all know how that went. Malkin was held off the scoreboard and Sid the Kid didn’t fare much better beyond a two-goal performance in Game Two. What’s more, the Blueshirts’ defenders put up a dozen points against the shaky Penguins and they did it without Kevin Klein.
Ryan McDonagh led the way with 25 minutes or more of ice time per game. He had four points against the Penguins and handled big assignments with poise. Dan Girardi had three assists and got down in the trenches for 23 blocked shots. He even took a puck to the face – the face – in Game One. In Game Three, Girardi logged 26 minutes. And he took another puck in the calf in Game Five but still put up 22 minutes of ice time. Welcome to the playoffs.
The Capitals have Braden Holtby in goal and that’s a bit of a problem considering the opposition. Against the Rangers in the regular season, Holtby let in a dozen goals on 116 shots for a .897 save percentage. And he missed Game Two of the playoffs against the Islanders with an illness, which raised concerns. But he allowed just seven goals in the last five games of the series against Long Island, which may have silenced the critics for a time.
Henrik Lundqvist is one of the best goalies in the game. He missed 23 regular season games but came back to the Rangers with no rust to speak of. Against the Penguins, he was on top of things. He allowed just eight goals on 132 shots, a .939 save percentage for those scoring at home. And he played the puck well out of his net, which could be a big deal against the Capitals considering how they like to propel their attack. Lundqvist will be The Factor for the Rangers in the series. He’ll be the reason they win.
This is one of those old-fashioned goaltending duels the kids keep talking about. The Rangers are a team that can reinvent themselves at a moment’s notice, so they’ll be able to juggle lines and handle adversity. The Capitals will hope their best players are their best players. They’ll also look to their stellar defence to get the job done, which could open up opportunities and wins. This should be a tight series.