Alas, we will NOT have a much-desired Rangers-Islanders playoff series, as the hockey gods decided to toy with us before ultimately delivering more of the same: Rangers vs. Capitals.
Familiar Foes, But a New Year
This marks the fifth time in seven years that the Rangers and Capitals will have met in the playoffs. The Caps won against an underdog Rangers squad in 2009 and 2011, while New York prevailed over Washington in 2012 and 2013.
With the teams having faced each other so frequently in the playoffs, dissecting their impending series might seem like a banal exercise. But it’s a new season and the teams are not completely the same as they have been in years past. The Capitals have a new coach (again) in Barry Trotz, an improved group of defensemen bolstered by the additions of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik, and a rising star in 22-year-old Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored the series clinching goal against the Islanders in spectacular fashion.
The Rangers, meanwhile, have not yet faced Washington in the playoffs under second-year bench boss Alain Vigneault. Since the clubs’ last playoff meeting in 2013, Kevin Hayes, Martin St. Louis, Dominic Moore, Keith Yandle, Kevin Klein, and Dan Boyle are among the players who have joined the Blueshirts.
There are many key factors for the Rangers when it comes to bringing down Washington, but here are three that stand out.
1. Rediscover the Offense
All four of the Rangers’ first round victories against the Pittsburgh Penguins came by a score of 2-1. They were able to lock it down defensively throughout the series (with the exception of their 4-3 loss in Game 2), so the fact that they didn’t muster much offense did not hurt them.
Against a deeper Capitals team, however, the Rangers will likely need more scoring. They were third in the NHL in goals per game during the regular season, but struggled against a Pens team that was depleted on the blue line. Facing a better defense corps that includes Niskanen, Orpik, John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Mike Green, and Tim Gleason, the Rangers will need to step up their offensive game.
The indefinite loss of creative forward Mats Zuccarello doesn’t help the Blueshirts, making it even more imperative that they get more tangible contributions from Martin St. Louis (who will likely take Zuccarello’s spot on the top line with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash), Chris Kreider, and Kevin Hayes. Nash will also need to return to his dominant form from the first three-quarters of the regular season, while Brassard, Carl Hagelin, and Derek Stepan will need to maintain consistency in finding the score sheet. Since so much of New York’s attack is generated by quick transitions from defense to offense, the club will also need defensemen like Ryan McDonagh and Keith Yandle to provide a spark from the back end.
2. Contain Ovechkin
This is a pretty obvious one that has not changed since the teams’ first post-lockout meeting in 2009. Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 53 goals during the regular season. Typically, the Rangers use the defense pairing of McDonagh and Dan Girardi against Ovechkin to bottle him up. They have been fairly successful, holding No. 8 to just four goals and two assists over the past two playoff series between the two teams — a total of 14 games (as the Rangers won both series in the full seven games).
Containing Ovechkin is key for the Rangers, as the Caps then have to rely on the likes of Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom (who does most of his damage in tandem with Ovechkin), Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Marcus Johansson, and Ranger-killer Jason Chimera. While these are all quality players, the Rangers would still be prudent to take their chances with them — even Chimera — more so than Ovechkin.
In this year’s regular season, Ovechkin had five goals in four games against the Rangers, but four of those came on the power play. That brings us to the next point…
3. Win (or Tie) the Special Teams Battle
Ovechkin had 5 goals against NYR in regular season, including 4 on the PP. Caps PP was 4-for-13.
— Dan Rosen (@drosennhl) April 28, 2015
The Capitals had the league’s #1 power play in the regular season, scoring at a 25.3% clip. Against the Rangers and their strong penalty kill (sixth in the NHL at 84.3%), they performed even better, as their 4-for-13 success rate equates to 31%.
It seems like an obvious strategy against the Caps’ power play would be to shadow Ovechkin heavily on the left wing so he cannot set up for his lethal one-timer. One would think that teams would at least try that until Washington countered with an adjustment. Nevertheless, the Capitals have been effective all season at scoring on the power play, so the Rangers will have to stay out of the box and really dig in on the penalty kill on the occasions when they are shorthanded.
The Rangers’ power play, on the other hand, has been a sore spot seemingly forever. Even with the trade-deadline acquisition of power play specialist Keith Yandle, New York finished 21st in the league with a meager 16.8% success rate.
Taking that into consideration, the Rangers really just need to try to break even with the Caps on power play goals. If they can avoid too many trips to the penalty box, have a reasonably effective penalty kill when they have to, and chip in power play goals of their own in a timely — if infrequent — manner, they will be in great shape. The Rangers are such a strong five-on-five team (#1 in the league during the regular season with a 1.32 ratio of goals for/goals against during five-on-five play) that they just need to avoid getting burned in the special teams department.
If the Rangers can at least earn a draw on special teams, contain Alex Ovechkin, and get more from their offense, they will likely find themselves in the Eastern Conference Finals for the second straight year and third time in the past four.