It’s that lovely time of year again where the weather gets warmer (presumably) and the most exciting sports postseason is set to begin. The first games of this year’s playoffs will start Wednesday, April 13. The first day will feature the Eastern Conference winning Washington Capitals and the no. 8 seeded New York Rangers.
The last playoff meeting between the two teams was in the first round of the 2009 playoffs, where the Capitals came back from being down 3-1 in the series to win in seven games. The win for the Caps put them in the second round for the first time since their Stanley Cup run to the Finals in 1998, but lost in seven games to their arch rivals and eventual ’09 Cup winners, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
For some background on the season series, the Rangers defeated the Capitals in the regular season three times to post a 3-1-0 record. While one of those wins for New York was a defensive battle that had to be decided in the shootout, two of the Rangers’ wins were complete drubbings on the Capitals: a 7-0 victory on home ice and a 6-0 win in Washington without Ruslan Fedotenko (who left mid-game) and Marc Staal one day before the trade deadline.
That trade deadline worked wonders for the Capitals, however. After acquiring Jason Arnott and Dennis Wideman, the Caps immediately improved their play. The addition of a second line center who had won a Cup before and an offensive defenseman to take the place of an injured Mike Green gave the Caps a lot more options for scoring and defensive pairings. The pressure was finally off of the first line to score and all of a sudden Washington’s top producers Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom finally began to look like themselves on the scoreboard. And on top of the offensive production, the and defense and goaltending from Braden Holtby, Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov remained strong.
With all of those factors going for the Caps, fans in Washington hope their team has learned a lesson or two from their last experiences against the Rangers. As a result, there are some things they must make sure to make note of going into Wednesday:
- Physicality: Many have noted that the Rangers are a very physical team. It’s quite obvious, as they lead the league in hits with 2333 for the entire year. It is imperative that Washington matches that physicality, which is very possible as they have outhit the Rangers in previous games. But the Rangers have mastered the art of being physical without being penalized for their physicality. Staying out of the box while maintaining pressure on the Rangers forwards would be a wise piece of advice for the Caps to win.
- Defense: Along with hits, the down and dirty play will also be a huge factor in this series. In the Rangers’ blow out victories over the Caps, blocked shots were the demon that kept the Caps from getting on the board. If the Caps can establish a physical presence early on though, they will be able to fight their way to the net and avoid a situation where they end up shooting at Rangers defensemen. The Caps themselves must also use blocked shots to their advantage. They are not too far from the top in teams leading in blocked shots.
- Getting a fast start: Henrik Lundqvist is a world-class goaltender, there’s no way around that; unless the Caps begin strong and set the tone. Much of what hurt the Capitals this season against New York was that the Rangers were able establish their own game early on. Rangers’ rookie forward Derek Stepan said after Feb. 24’s 6-0 victory, “We played the way we wanted to right from the start, and then we finished it, too.” The Caps cannot allow that to happen. According to the two teams’ goals-by-period stats, both squads are slow starters scoring-wise, and then get going from the second period on. However, Washington has allowed the second fewest amount of goals in the third period this year, only behind the Boston Bruins. So provided the Capitals get to a faster scoring start and force the Rangers to play their game, the Caps can get pucks past Lundqvist.
- Special teams: Both the Rangers and Capitals have not done so well on the power play, as they were ranked 18th and 19th this season respectively. But lately, the Capitals seem to have found their stride with the extra man. Prior to Saturday’s loss to the Florida Panthers, the Caps had a 55.6 percent efficiency rating on the power play in three straight games on nine opportunities. While it will be difficult to force the Rangers on the penalty kill, Washington can boost their offense and pressure on Lundqvist and the New York defense with power plays. Not only will the power play matter, but the penalty kill will be a factor as well. As mentioned before, the Rangers do not get penalized often, but can force other teams to get frustrated and get whistled themselves. The Capitals’ superb penalty killing this season (second in the league after killing 85.6 percent of their penalties this season) can also help in setting the tone and keeping the Rangers off the board.
- Avoiding players “missing in action” and making sure key players do their jobs: Last season, some of the top players for the Capitals fell through the cracks and disappeared when the team needed them most to make a play. It is crucial that everyone shows up and produces whether it is for key plays on offense or defense in order to make a complete effort to beat a tough Rangers team. So all players, from Ovechkin to John Carlson, no matter how big or small the role they will play in this series, need to make sure they show up to do their part.
Through examining this postseason matchup between the Caps and Rangers, I found it eerily similar to the Caps and Canadiens series from last year. Aside from the fact that, much like the Habs last year, the Rangers have a winning record against the Capitals in the regular season (3-1-0), the Capitals remain a favorite in the series and to make it to the Finals. They will be squaring off against a team that had to put everything they had in just to make the playoffs, along with some help from a few losses here and there. The Caps, on paper, especially after the trade deadline, look like the superior team, and rightfully so. However, Washington cannot allow history to repeat itself, as they have to use that as motivation and not as fear going into this series.
As always, the Capitals have to keep their egos in check, and make sure that they do not play down to their opponent or get too confident and forget that the Rangers are a really tough team… really tough. That being said, as I am here to give my opinion, I state that the Caps will win in five games. It is possible the series can go to six games, but five is my final answer. However, those five games will not be a pushover of a five game set. Washington needs to make sure this series stays as short as possible because the Rangers can wear the Caps down. With many injuries to the roster late in the season and plans to make a deep run this year, the Capitals have to conserve as much energy while playing as hard as possible in each individual game.
This season, the Caps were favored to win the Cup by 550+ as of April 1, when they were in second place. Beyond the Rangers and the Bruins, the Caps have fared well against other teams in the Eastern Conference. With a team better built than ever before, if they win this series in fewer than seven games, Washington should be well set for the rest of the playoffs.