Now that all the zaniness of round one is over, Washington will get back on the ice tonight to take on the New York Rangers, again. Considering that the Capitals missed the playoffs last year, it is a reminder how much the Blueshirts have changed in the last two years, along with the Capitals. No longer is tactical Debby Downer John Tortarella coaching the team and player deployment wizard Alain Vigenault is in his place. Many players since the 2013 series have also come and gone. Let’s take a look as to how both teams look and see how this series will be won.
How Did We Get Here?
Both teams came in after winning their series in differing fashions. For the Caps, it was a seven game rumble against one of the most potent offensive teams in the NHL, the New York Islanders. For the Rangers, they took care of a Pittsburgh Penguins team that was down to it’s bare bones along the lineup in short order, yet continued their offensive struggles. Their high PDO total is still there as Henrik Lundqvist continued to do Henrik Lundqvist things despite the fact the Rangers shot a full two percent lower at even strength than they did when they finished third in the NHL in that category.
This all goes back to what the Rangers have really been throughout the regular season, a hockey team that probably is on decline from a puck possession standpoint that is hanging on for dear life to keep their current run with the core group of players they have in tact. Five years resulting in 67 playoff games, two 109-plus point regular seasons, two conference finals and a Stanley Cup finals appearance would exhaust on any team, let alone these New York Rangers.
As for the Caps, they are back to the second round in hopes of only making their third conference finals appearance in franchise history and the first since Alex Ovechkin joined the team. They embarked in a seven game verbal and physical battle the likes of which we haven’t seen since Oberyn Martell faced the Mountain in Game of Thrones. Washington found a way to survive such carnage and they did so by using one ingredient that could not only rival the Rangers but also lead them towards their best playoff run in their team history.
Sometimes the best defense….is a good defense
It can’t be stated enough that the New York Islanders were the second best offensive team in the NHL and yet the Capitals pulled the incredible of suffocating them when it mattered most. Add the fact that all the bounces went accordingly, and, unlike 2010, Washington is where they are today. Their game seven dominance at even strength was a microcosm of just what Barry Trotz’s systems and off-season additions Brooks Orpik and Matt Niskanen have done to improve the team from a mediocre defense to one that sits in the top ten.
Now, they’ll be playing a Rangers team that, despite being overrated from a overall shot attempts standpoint, still find a way to suffocate scoring chances better than most teams in the league. What could be fascinating is that while they are of top ten quality on that side of the game, the Rangers have been in a constant free fall on the offensive side of the rink, especially since Martin St. Louis twisted his knee during the regular season.
All year, the Rangers have lacked a ton of injuries to impact complete alterations to the line combinations for the exceptions of a few youngsters hoping to make a name for themselves. Yes, Kevin Klein and St. Louis’ injuries have been important losses, but James Sheppard and Matt Hunwick each have a good chunk of NHL experience and other playoff teams would be jealous towards the Blueshirts having such players sitting in the press box most nights. Some may argue that Alain Vigenault’s lack of flexibility within the forward ranks has been a complete detriment to the offense. Having Tanner Glass play in the lineup for 66 games will make people feel that way.
The “Mendoza Line” for hockey should be named after Tanner Glass and should be called the Glass Ceiling.
— Draglikepull (@draglikepull) November 17, 2014
Toeing the line … combinations
However, Vigenault has also had to find a way to maintain the same offensive output from a Rangers team that had Brad Richards and Benoit Pouliot; two forwards that are great puck possessors and have some unfair reputations within NHL circles. Replacing them have been Kevin Hayes and J.T. Miller and both have contributed in a positive way while Mats Zuccarello and Derick Brassard have dramatically increased their role from being paired with Rick Nash on the top line.
With no Richards, Vigenault has not found that Sedin twin-like line that deserves the most favorable zone starts in the NHL and instead, has shared the offensive zone starts load more evenly towards his top nine forwards. Some could argue that that is due to the goal-scoring depth that his team possesses up and down the lineup. If there ever was a sheltered line that let’s the fourth line do the dirty work like most Vigenault teams do, it would be the third line that usually consists of Hayes and Carl Hagelin.
Since the knee injury, St. Louis has been a part of that third line while Miller has moved up to a second line with Derek Stepan and Chris Kreider that has been the closest thing to a shutdown line this season. Now, Zuccarello is a question mark due to a concussion he received from taking a puck to the side of the head in game five of the Penguins series. If only Vigenault could still have Anthony Duclair in the Rangers system but instead, he has to settle with Sheppard being added into the lineup and he has actually made Glass look good this season.
For the Caps, gone is the shutdown third line of Brooks Laich, Eric Fehr and Joel Ward that looked so good in January and then rotted miserably in February. Add in the fact that Andre Burakovsky was scratched one too many times this season instead of Jason Chimera and you have plenty of sub-optimal forward line combinations this season. The likes of Troy Brouwer’s lack of on-ice production and Tom Wilson’s puzzling development have also cost the Capitals dearly on the offensive end. It’s why the shot generation graphs from the Capitals in total attempts and scoring chances are like rapid heartbeats from an EKG monitor.
During the playoffs, the lines have looked completely differently and the deployments made the Caps look like they scrambled like mad in order to win the Islanders series. To have your third line being deployed in such a sheltered manner against ECHL competition like that is an embarrassment and can not happen again in this round. If anything, that’s the job of the fourth line, no matter how hard the Casey Cizikas, Matt Martin, Cal Clutterbuck line played and no matter how good Laich is from a reputation and pedigree standpoint.
This series might be just a bit special
The other thing to be concerned about for the Capitals has been a struggling power play during the playoffs. Some of that has been a sign of things to come ever since mid-March, but the same crowd should argue that all it takes is a re-insertion of Mike Green as the team’s point man in the 1-3-1 formation to get the power play rolling again. That being said, the Rangers are no slouches to the penalty kill. So much so, that the Rangers are the best in the NHL in both shot suppression and shot generation while shorthanded. This requires some of the best puck movement amongst the Capitals power play unit all season in order to correct any bad habits that developed during the Islanders series. It should be noted that Washington finished 24th in giving up shot attempts with a man up.
While the Rangers power play isn’t as bad as their percentages indicate, their shot rate from certain areas of the ice have dwindled between two seasons. Last year, the Rangers were more willing to generate shots from both sides of the half wall. This year, everything is coming from the point and smack dab in the middle of the two face off dots with hopes of rebounds being snatched by the crashing forwards at the end of their version of the 1-3-1. Again, younger forwards are taking bigger roles and it took until Vigenault decreased Dan Boyle’s role on the man advantage and gave more playing time to Ryan McDonagh and Keith Yandle to become a top ten unit again.
However, this series could also come down to which direction the Capitals penalty kill is. Since their crazy regular season game against the Senators, they have been leaking shot attempts like nobody’s business. Their last three games against the Islanders, however, saw them right the ship into a tight-knit force. In short, just like every other hockey stat this time of year, is this a trend or is this the small sample size monster nibbling on people’s brains?
If the Rangers win the series, it will be because the Capitals power play continues to struggle and that translates to what ends up happening at evens. Also, if possible, the Rangers find a way to crack Lane Lambert’s penalty kill and sends them back to the drawing board for the rest of the series. Oh, and Tanner Glass does not turn Dominic Moore into a rotten pumpkin.
If the Capitals win the series, it will be because their shot suppression at even strength carries on towards a Rangers team that shouldn’t be better than the Islanders team they previously faced. Braden Holtby exacts his revenge on Henrik Lundqvist and seals his place among the best goaltenders in all of hockey. Lastly, Barry Trotz settles on one set of four forward lines he wants the rest of the playoffs and gives every line a certain role like he had them back in January.
All research and data from today’s piece came from war-on-ice.com and stats.hockeyanalysis.com.
Ben covers the Washington Capitals at the hockey writers. He has been blogging about the NHL since March 2013. Follow him @DCSportsDork