After one of their most successful regular seasons ever, the Washington Capitals are now ready to begin what many call the “real” hockey season: the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Tonight kicks off Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, with the second seed Caps holding home ice advantage in facing the seventh seed New York Rangers. So how does it all break down, and what do we think will happen?
The Rangers are coming in with a simplified game plan: attack, attack, attack – and hope that goalie Henrik Lundqvist can stop all the pucks flung his way. It’s not the most sure-fire strategy, but it’s kept the Rangers hanging on the last half of the season and slipping them into the playoffs with a decent 11-6-1 record after March 4.
It’s not a successful strategy against the Caps. Alex Ovechkin and crew hold a 3-1 record against the Rangers in the regular season, with the Rangers winning the last game in February in overtime. But the key to a Rangers win is going to really be determined by which goalie shows up in the Caps net – Jose Theodore, or Jose Theodore.
Theodore’s got some impressive playoff series wins – witness his first round stints with Montreal in 2002 and 2004, and with Colorado last year. But can he remain consistent throughout and overcome his leaky ways? Keep in mind that Theodore did not crack the top 30 among goalies in goals-against or in save percentage this year. While some of that does in fact do with the Caps high-powered run-and-gun play, it’s still fuel for a lot of fire for Theodore’s detractors. The Caps need the former Vezina winner version of Theodore to stand in the pipes and hold off Ranger powerhouses Chris Drury and Scott Gomez. Not to mention currently on-fire agitator Sean Avery, who was a force to be reckoned with in the last few Ranger games of the regular season. He’s successfully riled top-notch netminders like New Jersey’s Martin Brodeur and Boston’s Tim Thomas; can he goad Theodore into apoplexy as well?
Don’t despair, Caps fans. Boudreau’s core crew is still quite the offensive force to be reckoned with. Possibly enough to overcome Theodore’s faults.
Leading the charge is obviously Ovechkin and his linemates Niklas Backstrom and Viktor Kozlov. But the offense goes another line deep on the firepower with Sergie Federov solidly centering Brooks Laich and Alexander Semin. The third and fourth lines are excellent anchor lines, but don’t look to them for the majority of the team’s goals. Instead, keep an eye on defenseman Mike Green, who’s surprised many in the league with his sniping ability and 1.07 average points per game.
(As an aside, we’ll politely ask that Semin keep his slappy hands to himself, if only to retain the team’s dignity in fights. Leave the beatings to Erksine and Pothier (and a healthy Brashear), Alex!)
The Caps are young yet, with much of the team’s core playoff experience only being last year’s seven game series loss against the Flyers. The Rangers as a whole have a lot more experience across the board – but playoff experience can only accounts for so much and doesn’t always translate into goals.
So where does that leave the Caps in this round? From where we see it, on the winning end. As long as Theodore shows up and keeps the leakage to a minimum while the offense gets as many pucks past Lundqvist as possible, the Caps should easily make the second round. Caps in five.
After this round, however, the East gets infinitely harder. Hopefully, we’ll see you back here at WeLoveDC for a look at Round 2.
Games 1 and 2 are here at the Verizon Center, tonight (7 p.m.) and Saturday (1 p.m.). Games 3 and 4 in New York on Monday and Wednesday at 7 p.m. Games 5-7, if necessary, will be on April 24, 26 and 28.