The scorching Washington Capitals come into Game One of the Eastern Conference quarterfinals as the NHL’s hottest team. Washington finished the regular season with a 15-2-2 record and much of that success was due to superstar captain Alex Ovechkin carrying the Caps on his back.
Ovechkin finished the regular season with a league-best 32 goals and in all likelihood has earned himself a third career Hart Trophy. My feeling is that if you stop Ovechkin, you’ll stop the Caps and the Rangers have the best kryptonite in all-world goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Outside of Ovechkin, there isn’t a whole lot of natural scorers on Washington’s roster. Troy Brouwer enjoyed a breakthrough season with 19 goals and 33 points in 47 games, but I’m not sold on him being a playoff performer. Playmaking centers Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Ribeiro are always a handful, but the Rangers have a number of defenseman who can throw them off their game even without shutdown defenseman Marc Staal available.
I see the Caps as a less offensively-explosive team than years past. When Washington allowed Alex Semin to leave via free agency, they lost a clear-cut second scoring option. This is where the Caps are going to get hurt in this series. If Lundqvist can keep Ovechkin quiet, I don’t think the Capitals stand much of a chance.
Meanwhile, the Rangers restocked themselves at the trade deadline. Since acquiring Derick Brassard, John Tortorella is now able to roll three lines that boast playmaking centers. Brassard, Derek Stepan and Brad Richards are coming into this series on a hot streak.
Stepan finished April with 19 points in 14 games and enjoyed the best production of his career by scoring 44 points in 48 games. He’s developed into true no.1 center as he’s taken great leaps as both an offensive and defensive centerman.
Brassard feels comfortable in his new surroundings as he scored 11 points in 13 games as a Ranger. Richards struggled for most of the season, but was able to catch fire in April by collecting 16 points in 14 games.
The Rangers’ wealth in depth has certainly taken a blow with Staal, physical forward Ryane Clowe and forward Brian Boyle beset by injuries. Their status for this series is uncertain. Even if all three do not suit up all series, I still think the Rangers are the deeper team from top-to-bottom – especially on the blue line.
New York is more than equipped to shut down the Capitals’ two scoring lines. Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, John Moore and Steve Eminger will put the clamps on the Caps with their big bodies.
When I look down the Rangers roster, I see Stepan, Rick Nash, Ryan Callahan, Richards and Brassard as players who can chip in better collectively than Washington’s major reliance on Ovechkin.
Strength in depth and the enormous advantage of having Lundqvist between the pipes are key reasons why I see the Rangers winning this series in six games.
You can follow Sean on Twitter — @HartnettHockey.