This year’s Rangers were supposed to be better than last year’s squad that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. On paper, it looked like they would be… but that’s why they play the games. On the ice, the team failed to meet expectations. Picked by many as Stanley Cup favorites, the Blueshirts battled just to reach the postseason.
Of course any regular season struggles can be wiped clean with a strong playoff run. (Are you listening, Brad Richards?) That postseason starts now.
Regular Season Struggles
Both the Rangers and Capitals were disappointing their fans midway through the season. The highly-touted Rangers had fallen out of contention for the division lead and were desperately hanging on to a playoff spot. The Capitals were languishing near the bottom of the Southeast Division standings. Both teams would find their footing.
The Capitals, on the broad, high-scoring shoulders of Alex Ovechkin, went on a 9-0-1 run that started in late March, blowing past their division rivals and claiming the #3 seed as Southeast Division Champions. Ovechkin finished the year with an unbelievable 22 goals in his final 21 games to capture the Rocket Richard Trophy as the league’s leading goal-scorer. The Caps’ captain was held without a point in only three of the the team’s final 21 games. It comes as no surprise that he is the engine that drives Washington’s offense. As Ovechkin goes, so go the Capitals.
The Rangers didn’t find their spark until the trade deadline. Whether it was addition by subtraction in dealing away struggling Marian Gaborik or an infusion of blue-collar hard work via Ryane Clowe, Derick Brassard, and John Moore, it gave the Blueshirts a jump.
New York went 10-3-1 through the month of April. Leading scorer Derek Stepan led the charge with eight goals, 19 points, and a +14 rating. Brad Richards also found his game, wrapping up the season with a six-game point streak that included five goals and six assists, while also winning 55.1% of draws in the faceoff circle.
Complain if you want that the Rangers’ last seven games were against non-playoff teams. There’s no arguing with the fact that weaker teams – especially those long since eliminated from the playoff hunt – make for an easier road. In the NHL, though, wins are wins, and winning breeds confidence – and confidence is a big part of playoff success.
Related Story: Rangers/Capitals: A Playoff History (1986-2013)
Keys to Victory:
One place you’ll find plenty of confidence in this series is inside the blue paint at both ends of the rink, with goaltenders Braden Holtby and Henrik Lundqvist.
Holtby, 23, is coming off his first full season – as full as you can get in a shortened one – with the Capitals. He posted a record of 23-12-1 with a .920 save percentage, a 2.58 goals against average, and four shutouts. Holtby had his ups and down throughout the year, but finished strong. The Saskatchewan native won nine of his last ten games with a .936 save percentage and 2.16 goals against average. He’ll need to keep playing at that level to match his counterpart in this series.
Henrik Lundqvist, fresh off a Vezina Trophy win, maintained his level of excellence this season. Lost among the Rangers’ offensive struggles was the terrific year put up by the Swedish netminder. His .926 save percentage and 2.05 goals against average were the second best numbers of his career, bested only by his Vezina-winning 2011-12 season. Lundqvist also kept pace with the Caps goaltender during the home stretch of the season, with even more impressive stats. The Blueshirts’ backstop won seven of nine with a .928 save percentage and a 1.75 goals against average, along with two shutouts.
Both goalies are capable of stealing a game – possibly even a series. No longer the unfamiliar rookie the Rangers faced last year, the team should be better prepared to test the Capitals’ young goalkeeper. The Rangers will need to challenge Holtby. Cool and unflappable, it’s hard to get him off his game, but the Rangers will need to find a way. Changing up their offense, getting shots to the net, and crashing the crease like they’ve been doing – letting Mats Zuccarello get his feet in the paint – will be key to getting pucks past Holtby.
Back in March, they put three past Holtby in the first 30 minutes of the game, getting him a nice seat on the bench for the second half of the game as Michael Neuvirth came in to the game in relief.
2. Score First, Shoot Often
The Rangers have the second-best win percentage in the league when scoring first (.897), behind only the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Chicago Blackhawks. The problem is that they don’t do it enough. The Rangers have only struck first in 21 games this year, lowest among all playoff teams. When they do score, though, the Blueshirts hang on to their leads. The Rangers are 13-0-1 (.929) when leading after one, behind only the Los Angeles Kings, and a perfect 16-0-0 when leading after two.
Falling behind is a different story. The Rangers only managed a 7-12-4 record (.304) when giving up the first goal and going 5-10-1 (.313) when trailing after the first. The Capitals, on the other hand, led the league in wins when trailing after one period, going 9-9-2 (.450). They also led the league with five wins when trailing after two periods of play. Obviously, it’s crucial for the Rangers to score first, but even then, they’re up against an opponent that will find ways to battle back. If they want to be in the series, they need to get the first goal.
Of course scoring comes from shooting, and it’s interesting how these two teams respond to shot totals. The Rangers have a very consistent win percentage regardless of whether or not they outshoot their opponent. The Capitals aren’t so balanced, going 11-3-0 (.786) when outshooting their opponents and only 16-15-3 (.471) when outshot.
Over the course of the season, the Capitals have allowed four more shots per game (32.3) than they’ve taken (28.1). The Rangers average more shots than their opponents, with 30.9 vs. 28.2. If this holds up in the playoffs, expect New York to outshoot their opponents. Statistically speaking, the Caps struggle when outshot, so it’s up to the Rangers to keep pucks moving towards the net. The quality and placement of those shots will determine how effective they are at getting past Holtby. The more shots, though, the better the chances they find the twine.
3. Eliminate the Special Teams Advantage
The Capitals’ power play will determine the winner of this series. Forget everything else I’ve said. It all comes down to the man advantage for Washington.
The Capitals possess the league’s best power play, converting at a rate of 26.8% on the season. Recently, the Caps have become even more dangerous up a man, scoring at a 34.1% pace since April 2. Power play goals made up 28.6% of Washington’s goals on the season and an amazing 33.3% of the team’s goals since the trade deadline. With one-third of the scoring output coming from the power play, the strategy looks pretty simple: Stop the power play, and you stop the Caps’ offense.
Better yet, don’t let them start. The Rangers, at only 444 PIM on the season, are the league’s least penalized team. Continued discipline from the Blueshirts would minimize the amount of time the Capitals spent on the power play, which would work to their advantage – especially since New York is the better team at even strength.
Five-on-five, the Rangers are much stronger, boasting a 1.30 goal ratio – highest in the Eastern Conference. This means for every opponent goal at even strength, the Rangers are scoring 1.3 even-strength goals. The Capitals are a much more pedestrian – and nearly flat – 1.07. If the Caps can be contained on the power play, the Rangers can handle them five-on-five. Adam Herman over at the NY Rangers Blog has some good ideas on how New York can contain Ovechkin and the Caps.
Although they’ve been far from impressive, don’t count out the Rangers’ power play. While they’re a depressingly low 15.7% on the season, they’ve improved dramatically since the trade deadline. Since April 3, the Rangers’ power play has been clicking along at 20.9%. The Rangers won’t score many on the power play, but a timely marker could be huge. This will be a tight series with few goals to go around, so every one will be important.
Expect yet another tough, hard-fought series between the Rangers and the Capitals. Both teams are coming into the playoffs playing their best hockey of the year. The Rangers need to stay healthy and avoid wearing out their top two lines while shutting down the Capitals’ power play. It’s no easy feat, but with Girardi and McDonagh on the blueline and Henrik Lundqvist in net, the Blueshirts have the tools to be able to do it. The series will depend on how the Rangers’ penalty kill matches up against the Capitals’ power play, as well as how well the Rangers can stay out of the penalty box. Lundqvist can outplay Holtby, and he’ll have to.
Whichever team wins will likely limp into the second round after an exhausting, physical series. Defenseman Dan Girardi admitted as much, saying ”They’re playing really well. Like us, they had a really solid April. We expect the series to be hard-fought, with a lot of hitting.” The Rangers, though, will leverage their experience, depth, and their goaltender to outlast the Capitals… but not by much.
Series Prediction: Rangers in 7
Related Story: For a take from the DC-side of things, check out Caps Writer Matthew Speck’s Series Preview!
Follow Josh on Twitter – @joshsmith29
Josh is a life-long hockey fan. He grew up as a fan of the New York Rangers, but thanks to their general mismanagement and years of mediocrity, has developed a great appreciation for every team across the league.
He’s been writing about hockey on various sites since 1995. In addition to his work at The Hockey Writers, he also keeps tabs on the referees over at ScoutingTheRefs.com.