In almost 24 hours, the second season will get started for John Tortorella’s Rangers when they visit superstar Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals in D.C. If they did what was required by winning the final three to earn a fourth straight trip to the postseason and the East’s No.7 seed, then by no means will they be favorites against an explosive offense led by the game’s best player.
What the Rangers will attempt is to neutralize Ovechkin attacking a suspect D and veteran goalie Jose Theodore as much as possible, utilizing the more aggressive style that helped salvage a disappointing season. They should be able to score in this series and will call upon Henrik Lundqvist to come up with the momentum turning saves. If they get the goaltending, then perhaps an upset could be in the cards.
Let’s take a look at how the old Patrick Division rivals- who haven’t met in the playoffs since 1994 when the Blueshirts ousted the Caps in five games Conference Semis en route to a Stanley Cup- stack up:
FORWARDS-It’s pretty obvious that the high powered Capitals should have a decided edge boasting league leading finisher Ovechkin (56 goals, 110 Pts) along with super soph Nicklas Backstrom (22-66-88), Alex Semin (34 goals, 79 Pts, +25) and roving defenseman Mike Green (31-42-73, +24 in 68 GP), who basically is an extra threat who must be contained. Their secondary scorers shouldn’t be underestimated either featuring Brooks Laich (23 G), Tomas Fleischmann (19 G), Viktor Kozlov (41 Pts), Eric Fehr (12 G) along with the proven Sergei Fedorov (22 assists) and Michael Nylander (24 A). All this explains why Washington finished third in offense behind only Detroit and Boston.
Conversely, the Rangers had the third worst offense totaling only 200 goals excluding the shootout. It will take a total team effort. Their best players must perform which means Scott Gomez (16-42-58, 7 GW) must elevate his game off a disappointing second year on Broadway. Nik Zherdev (23-35-58) was up and down all season and awfully quiet down the stretch. That can’t happen. Chris Drury (22-34-56, 10 PPG) came on the final month but missed the final game and didn’t practice. He must be healthy. Nik Antropov (7-6-13 in 18 GP) has been a solid contributor whose size and skill have been a welcome sight. Top finisher Markus Naslund (24 goals) did little until the last week. Is that a good sign? Expect the Blueshirts to get contributions from Ryan Callahan (22 goals, SHG, +7), Sean Avery (12 Pts in 18 GP, 34 PIM) and rejuvenated soph Brandon Dubinsky (13 G, 28 A, 7 GW). Each must get involved physically.
DEFENSE-Green (25:45 TOI) headlines a group that is solid but unspectacular. That includes former Ranger ‘fan fave’ Tom Poti (13 Pts, 28 PIM in 52 GP), who gets important minutes (21:08) as does Jeff Schultz (19:45). Milan Jurcina and John Erskine provided physicality and Shaone Morrisonn can move the puck. Bruce Boudreau will rely on Green a ton in all situations. They can be attacked.
A huge storyline to this series is how Marc Staal (15 Pts, 64 PIM, 21:07) will fare against Ovechkin. Tortorella has used the former 2005 No.1 pick along with partner Dan Girardi (18 helpers, 53 PIM, 21:31) as a shutdown pair. Both will need to be physical on Ovechkin limiting time and space. It will be trial by fire. Wade Redden (23 assists, 51 PIM, -5) has been a nightmare but does log crucial minutes (22:20). Michal Rozsival (8-22-30, 3 PPG, 22:30) has looked better since returning playing more steady which must continue. It would also help if he shot the puck. Paul Mara (5-16-21, 94 PIM in 76 GP) quietly was the Rangers’ best defenseman and Derek Morris (8 A, 4 PPA, +3 in 18 GP) has been a good pickup showing the ability to make good reads along with smart outlets. He also has a rocket from the point.
GOALIES-Washington GM George McPhee gambled on Theodore to replace Cristobal Huet. The one-time Hart/Vezina winner has been alright posting a 32-17-5 record along with a 2.87 GAA, .900 save percentage plus two shutouts. On most teams, those mediocre numbers wouldn’t be good enough. But on a high scoring run and gun team, it has. He’ll be asked to make timely saves in this series. Will he be up to the challenge? He’s the wild card in the series.
Henrik Lundqvist was an NHL All-Star for the first time establishing a new career high in wins (38) while putting up solid numbers across the board (2.43 GAA, .916 Sv Pct, 3 SHO) on a lowscoring team. It’s true enough he wasn’t always consistent but enters playing his best hockey of the season. He’ll have to be in tip top form and might need to steal a couple of games. This will be a huge test.
Special Teams-Special teams are always important at this time of year. The good teams execute cashing in on opponents’ mistakes. This series pits the No.2 rated power play (Wsh-25.2) against the top ranked penalty kill (NYR-87.8 percent). Even though the tandem of Blair Betts and Freddy Sjostom are as good as it gets, it’s still advisable for Tort’s club to stay disciplined. The Caps have many weapons which is why it might be wise. The Ranger PK can attack having scored nine shorthanded goals and the Cap PP did give up 11 during the season.
As for the Ranger powerless play, they’ve driven fans nuts all year placing second to last converting at only a 13.9 clip. If there’s an area the coach must get untracked to win this series, it’s the man-advantage. They also allowed the second most shorthanded goals (14) in the league with just Calgary (15) worse. The encouraging news is they haven’t permitted one since the coaching change. Washington’s PK was middle of the pack (80.6 percent-tied 17th) but scored seven SHG.
Coaches-Boudreau is in his second year and has guided the Caps to two consecutive Southeast Division Titles. He’s certainly done an admirable job turning this team into one of the better ones in the league. He can motivate. The question is what did he learn from last year’s first round ouster to the Flyers?
Tortorella boasts experience having been behind the Tampa Bay bench when they won the Cup in 2004. He’s fiery and demands a lot out of his players. If someone doesn’t perform, Tort won’t be afraid to bench them. He will doubleshift the players who are going and tinker with lines when things aren’t working. Can he outfox Boudreau?
Intangibles-The Capitals believe they’re better than a year ago and ready to make some noise. So, there’s some pressure to deliver. Losing again in the first round would be a bitter pill to swallow following such a good season. The Rangers will also be expected to perform under Tort, who doesn’t take to losing well. Still, the pressure really isn’t on them in this series which might work to their advantage.
Prediction-In assessing this series, it becomes clear that it’s basically offense against defense. Well, really the goaltending of Lundqvist to be exact. The Ranger blueline looks to have an edge. It might all depend on if the forwards score enough or what kind of series develops. A wide open one favors Ovechkin’s club. But a tighter series where defense and timely saves could factor in would bode well for the Blueshirts. They also haven’t performed well on the road winning just four times in the final 19. Plus the Caps went 29-9-3 at Verizon Center. Washington has never been kind to the Rangers. Due to that, it seems like almost too many things have to break right for them to pull it off.