The New York Rangers are the President’s Trophy Winners. The team looked poised for a return to the Stanley Cup Final this year where they would look to avenge their loss in 2014 to the LA Kings. The regular season seems to be a distant memory right now, and in this new season (the playoffs) it looks like the Washington Capitals might have the Rangers number. The Capitals are a bad matchup for New York and have the best chance to win a best-of-7 against the Rangers. If you look at the last two teams to defeat the Rangers in the playoffs, it was the heavy-style and hard-hitting 2013 Boston Bruins and 2014 LA Kings.
The 2015 Washington Capitals have a similar identity to those teams where they forecheck hard, wear teams down with their physical play, have skill up front, stellar goaltending, and a tough physical defense. The Caps are playing their best hockey right now of the season and the Rangers are not. The Rangers, who find themselves down 2-1 in the series, are in for a battle. The team is going to have to drive the net a lot harder and raise their compete level to match Washington if they want to advance to their 3rd Eastern Conference Final in 4 seasons. What else has changed with the Washington Capitals and why are they all of a sudden so tough to play against? There are 3 major factors for the new identity Capitals that allow them to play this new-style and we are going to take a look at them today.
1) Braden Holtby
It all starts in net for the Caps where their 25-year-old goalie has enjoyed his best year in the NHL by far. This is not the same Holtby whose name was chanted by Rangers fans in the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs. That Holtby was only 23-years-old and had not yet established himself as a starting goalie in the NHL. Holtby was known for overcommitting in net and being too aggressive in the crease. In 2014-2015 enter new head coach Barry Trotz and new goalie coach Mitch Korn, who is regarded as one of the best and has worked with Pekka Rinne in Nashville.
Holtby is now more composed in net, has exceptional rebound control, and is much better positionally. In the regular season he started 73 games (1st in the NHL) and went 41-20-10 with 9 shutouts (2nd in the NHL), a .923 save % (7th in the NHL), and a 2.22 GAA (5th in the NHL).
The playoffs have been nothing different where he is 5-4-1 with a .949 save % and a 1.54 GAA. The Capitals have a ton of confidence playing in front of “Holts” and the Rangers are going to need to go harder to the net and stop with so many perimeter shots on goal if they are going to put pucks by Holtby.
2) The Washington Defense
The Capitals have the most improved defense in the NHL from last season to now. It is anchored by 4 American-born defenseman and 2 Canadians. It all started with the signings of Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik from the Pittsburgh Penguins. The signings really changed everything for Washington.
The Caps top pairing last season was John Carlson and Karl Alzner. This signing added depth on the Washington blue line that has not been seen in the Alexander Ovechkin era. Carlson is now paired with Orpik on the top pairing, Alzner is now paired with Niskanen on the 2nd pairing, and Mike Green is paired with newly acquired Tim Gleason on the 3rd.
This is a defense that was top 3 in the NHL in scoring in the regular season, is very physical, and can also play shutdown defense. A goaltender is only as good as his defense, and the Caps defense certainly is their strength in my opinion and makes life easier on Holtby and the forwards. Niskanen was brilliant the other night in Game 3 on the defensive side of the puck where he had several blocked shots in addition to his strong defense. John Carlson was one of the NHL’s best this season for the Caps where he scored 12 goals, 43 assists, 55 points, and was a plus 11 while appearing in all 82 games. At only 25-years-old this is Carlson’s 5th postseason on the Caps blueline. He has been through the tough losses and is determined to help lead the Caps deep into the playoffs. He is a rare talent that can be dominant offensively and defensively from the blueline.
Mike Green is healthy and not being asked to do too much, as he was in the past. He scored 45 points from the blueline in the regular season in 72 games. While he has not put up the points so far in the playoffs, he is playing good hockey and looks confident in his new role with the team.
3) Ovechkin is All In
Alexander Ovechkin is playing the best two-way hockey of his career. In fact I would say he is playing the best and most complete hockey of his career. In the regular season he led the league with 53 goals and was 4th in the NHL with 81 points. His plus/mins went from a minus 35 to a plus 10. Barry Trotz was focused on Ovechkin’s play without the puck and was able to relate to Ovechkin. At age 29 Ovechkin realizes his window of opportunity to reach a Stanley Cup Final in his prime is closing each year. Of course Ovechkin does not appear ready to slow down anytime soon, but this playoffs he has been playing with a purpose each shift. That is not good for the New York Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist.
The Best Series in Round 2
I see this series as by far the best and most even of Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. It’s the physicality of the Caps against the speed of New York. I believe this series is even in the goaltending matchup and on defense. Braden Holtby right now is able to match the high-quality play of Henrik Lundqvist. Both defenses are excellent and top 3 in the NHL, and they will continue to limit quality chances and make things very tough on opposing forwards.
I believe this series will be about who can win low-scoring games, and which team’s forwards are willing to step up to the task. It’s going to take grit, determination, hard-work, net-front presence, and the ability to finish opportunities. With Rick Nash not feeling it right now, and looking nothing like the Rick Nash from the beginning of the regular season, the Rangers are in trouble. It does not help that his linemate Mats Zuccarello is out of the lineup as well. You simply cannot replace what Zuccarello brings to the Rangers team right now.
Chris Kreider appears to be the guy that is going to have to be the catalyst for the Rangers on offense right now. Derek Brassard, Derek Stepan, and Carl Hagelin will have to elevate their games even more right now for New York. One thing all hockey fans can agree on, is that this series looks destined for yet another 7-game series between New York and Washington and it is going to be fun to watch.
I am a 2015 graduate of Montclair State University in New Jersey. I have coached ice hockey at the high school level for two seasons here in NJ. I will be covering the Toronto Maple Leafs moving forward for The Hockey Writers.