Caps vs. Rangers: What will it take to escape the first round?

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If there are two days during the regular season when Caps were at their lowest, they were probably December 12th and February 25th. Those two days the Capitals, having dealt with recent struggles, were not just shut out by the New York Rangers …

They were buried.

New York beat Washington 7-0 in December and 6-0 in February while taking the season series from the Caps 3-1-0 (or 1-2-1 from the Washington perspective). The Rangers outscored Washington 17-6 and basically pestered the eventual top team in the Eastern Conference through four games.

Perhaps this is not the playoff matchup the Caps were hoping for.

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‘Mojo!’
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If there is any solace the Caps can take from this recent history is that the Washington teams of December and February were playing some of its worst hockey of the year and the Rangers, who tend to be very streaky, took advantage while the Caps were vulnerable.

Are the Caps still vulnerable?

History shows that teams that play well in March and into April fair better in the playoffs. That is one of the reasons the NHL continually sees upsets of lower seeds over the regular season powerhouses year after year – the lower seeds need to get hot just to make it to the dance while teams that basically have positions wrapped up let off the gas. This is not always true, of course, but there is enough of a correlation that it is a distinct trend.

Since March 1, the Caps are 15-3-1. That would qualify for being hot at the right time. They went from being tied or trailing the Lightning for most of 2011 to the top of the conference and the No. 1 seed heading into the chase for Lord Stanley’s Cup.

The Rangers were 12-5-1 in March and April and victimized playoff contenders like the Penguins, Flyers and Bruins with five, six and seven goal outputs (along laying six goals on teams like the Islanders and the Habs). Yet, with all that scoring, the Rangers were only 16th in the NHL in goals per game at 2.73 because when they are not streaking the are colder than a Manhattan wind in January. New York was better than the Caps though who barely finished in the top two-thirds of the league in goals at 19th with 2.67 a game.

On defense, the match is also about even in terms of pure numbers. Washington was fourth in the league in goals against at 2.33, the Rangers fifth at 2.38. Solid goaltending was the key for the Rangers as Henrik Lundqvist, always a top netminder, was buoyed by a young and talented defense. Washington, through its ups and downs, also had solid goaltending in front of coach Bruce Boudreau’s revamped defensive style.

So, let’s break down the keys to the series to see what the Caps need to do to escape the Rangers and avoid a repeat of the disappointments from playoffs past.

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Goaltending

Henrik Lundvist vs. Michal Neuvirth/Semyon Varlamov

Advantage – Rangers

With all due respect to the Caps young goaltenders, Lundqvist, when on his game, is one of the top goaltenders in the world. If he can get hot, it doesn’t matter how Washington plays, the Caps will not beat the Rangers. At least not easily. Lundvist this year was eighth in the NHL in save-percentage at .923 and seventh with a 2.28 goals against. Those are very solid numbers, not among the elite in the league, but still in the second tier of netminders in the NHL with the ability to play on his head if needed. He is a classic butterfly goalie and keeps his body very calm in the crease with good rebound control to the corners.

Varlamov actually beat Lundqvist in the save-percentage race this year, coming in sixth with a .924 rate, granted with about 1100 less shots against (27 games against 68 games). If the Caps make a run deep in the postseason it will be Neuvirth who will do most of the heavy lifting and the young man is not new to pressure, having led the Hershey Bears to the Calder Cup in two seasons in the AHL. Boudreau will go with the hot hand, though Neuvirth will probably get the first opportunities.

Forwards

Marian Gaborik and company vs. Alex Ovechkin and the Young Guns

Advantage – Capitals

Washington is deep at forward, especially after the addition of Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm at the trade deadline. Ovechkin and his boys have not played quite as well this year as they have in the past but, regardless of what has happened this year, the Caps are built around their top line talent.

On the Rangers side, Gaborik will be the key. He is talented and playing well down the stretch. He is also no Ovechkin. Gaborikl is a star, but a lesser star. Brian Boyle, Derek Stepan, Brandon Dubinsky and Brandon Prust are double-digit goal scorers and feisty individuals in their own right. The unit can be contained, especially if the Caps can keep them to the outside and out of the slot, but have the potential to break free if opponents are not diligent in their assignments.

Overall, the Caps have too much fire power not to have a clear advantage here. We will see if the Caps can gain momentum and if Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Arnott, Mike Knuble and Brooks Laich can prime the Caps pump.

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Defense

Marc Staal and Dan Girardi vs. Karl Alzner and John Carlson

Advantage – Rangers

This is a tricky question. Without Dennis Wideman or Tom Poti, the Rangers clearly have a better defensive unit, if slightly young. With Wideman and Poti, or maybe just Wideman and a healthy and effective Mike Green, the Caps have the best defense. Health is always the kicker and becomes a magnified issue over a short series. Wideman will probably not play against the Rangers and Poti has given no reason for the Caps to trust his health all year.

The top units for each team are similar. Staal and Girardi are young, yet they are actually older than Alzner and Carlson. When healthy the Caps have the better puck movers but the Rangers have better size to clear guys like Knuble and Laich out of the slot in front of Lundqvist. If many things heading into this series are even, the play of each teams’ individual defensive pairing on a shift-by-shift basis will be what separates them and sends one a step closer to the Cup.

Special Teams

Henrik Lundqvist v. Alex Ovechkin

Advantage – Capitals

Both teams struggled on the power play. Both were good on the penalty kill. Washington’s man-advantage has not been great this year but at 17.5 (15th in the league) percent it is still better the New York’s 16.9 percent (18th in the league). Boudreau will get creative if things get tough and/or the Caps make a run, from rolling out five forwards on the power play or insisting that Ovechkin play the point from the left side and try to hit a one-timer from the crease.

The Caps were second in the league in penalty killing at 85.6 percent and there is no reason (especially with Alzner and Carlson around) to think that this trend won’t continue. The Rangers are 10th in the league in the PK at 83.6 percent and will rely a lot on Lundqvist to keep the Caps out of the net when they get into counterattack mode.

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courtesy of ‘bridgetds’

Intangibles

John Tortorella vs. Bruce Boudreau

Advantage – Draw

The Rangers can be mean. Not like “he won’t share his sandwich” mean, but like “I might slit your throat if you look at me wrong” mean. That attitude comes straight from their coach and it works for them.

The Rangers have a habit of getting under opponents’ skin. Sean Avery is kind of like the Dennis Rodman of this era of the NHL. He pisses people off for the sake of it. I remember once when he hit Boston goaltender Tim Thomas up the back of his head with the blade of his stick “by accident” while skating by a stretching Thomas during a TV timeout. He is a punk and fits well with this New York team. Avery does not get a lot of ice time these days and in the playoffs teams try to avoid stupid penalties (Avery’s specialty) but the get-under-their-skin mindset is something that the Rangers share.

For the Caps, look out for Mike Green. If he can get back to his smooth-skating, puck-moving self, it will go a long way to helping Washington establish offensive presence and wearing down Lundqvist and the Rangers’ defense.

Prediction:

Capitals in six.

Dan Rowinski

New England raised, transplanted in Virginia. Sports writer who has spent several seasons on the NHL beat covering the Boston Bruins along with stints writing about Boston College, Red Sox, Capitals and Nationals. Has worked for the New England Hockey Journal, WEEI.com, Fire Brand Of The American League, TBD.com among others. Also a technophile covering technology for ReadWriteWeb. Follow Dan on Twitter @Dan_Rowinski or email him at dan (at) welovedc.com.

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