The playoffs start Wednesday for the New York Rangers when they take on the No. 1 seed in the East, the Washington Capitals at 7:30 p.m. in D.C. All told, the Rangers probably couldn’t have asked for a better first-round matchup. Here are several key factors to keep an eye on throughout the series.
Grind vs. Glitz
After the Caps spent the 2010-11 season remaking their image into that of a squad better suited for playoff success, the contrast between the playing styles of the two teams isn’t quite as stark. Still the Rangers’ grinding style presents a particular problem for a skill-based team like the Caps.
If the Rangers get into a shootout-style game with the Caps, the Blueshirts will likely be on the losing end. Washington’s offensive weapons simply outnumber New York’s. But, a blue-collar, hard-hitting game with little room to maneuver could be the ticket to a first-round upset.
Even more than the play of Henrik Lundqvist, I believe the make-or-break aspect of this series will be the Rangers’ forecheck. The Caps’ blueline has problems getting the puck out of its own end at times and with Dennis Wideman likely out for the first round (leg hematoma) and Mike Green not up to game speed (out with concussion since Feb. 25), Washington may need to rely on third-pairing D types John Erskine and Tyler Sloan more than they would like.
Also, keeping the puck deep in the Washington zone will require the Caps’ forwards to come back closer to their own net to help out, eliminating stretch passes and keeping one of the NHL’s best transition games grounded.
Hank the Tank
When these two teams met in the 2008-09 playoffs, Lundqvist nearly stole the first round from the Caps, pushing the series to seven games before a Sergei Fedorov blast from the glove-side faceoff circle provided the difference in a 2-1 game.
There was talk at the end of that series that Lundqvist’s glove wasn’t as quick as it normally was due to fatigue. And that year Lundqvist was only coming of seven consecutive starts. This season, he’s started three fewer games than 2008-09, but enters the playoffs having gotten the call in 26 straight since Feb. 11. That’s a career high for Lundqvist and even though he’s maintained that he wants to be playing and he doesn’t feel tired whenever he sits in front of his locker after games, you have to wonder if fatigue will be a factor.
The schedule could help though. The Rangers and Caps will get two days off between Games 3 and 4 and Games 4 and 5.
The Caps’ Kid Keepers
While the Rangers have no doubt who their netminder will be, for the Capitals’ it remains an open question. Washington’s trio of Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby has been very good for them this season. While Varlamov (.924) and Holtby (.934) have posted better save percentages, Neuvirth (.914) has seen more action this season and is expected to get the nod as the series opens. But I’m not sure how comfortable Bruce Boudreau is with that decision and the hook could be a quick one if Neuvirth gets torched early. Remember, Neuvirth was the goalie the Rangers burned for six goals on 28 shots the last time these clubs met. A few quick goals in Game 1 could create a crisis of confidence in the Caps’ crease, just like it did in 2008-09 when Jose Theodore got yanked for the series after giving up four goals in the first game.
Staal and Girardi vs. The Great 8
Bruce Boudreau will try to keep his top offensive threat away from the Rangers’ best blueline tandem, but frankly, he hasn’t done a very good job controlling matchups in the past. Oh, and Alex Ovechkin didn’t score a goal against the Rangers during the regular season. If Marc Staal and Dan Girardi can again keep him under wraps, the media will start talking, Ovechkin could start pressing and the pressure will start rising on a team that absolutely, positively cannot lose in the first round without major repercussions. More on that later.
Green Blue Liners
With Mike Green shelved for most of the season the Caps have had to rely on Karl Alzner and John Carlson as their top pairing this season. Never mind that they had just 237 games of combined experience. They have been very effective though, with Alzner sporting a plus-14 and Carlson at plus-21 despite seeing the opposition’s top scorers every night. They don’t fluster easily and they almost always make the simple play, which keeps them out of hot water. They don’t, however, clear the crease that well. If the Rangers can plant Brian Boyle or Brandon Prust in front of the cage to bother the Caps’ netminder, that could generate some chaos and lead to some dirty opportunities for the Blueshirts.
Somebody cue Billy Joel. This is perhaps the single greatest advantage the Rangers will have this series. As I mentioned briefly after they clinched this berth, there are no more expectations for New York. They’re a young, improving team and against the top squad in the East there should be no expectations for an upset, particularly without Ryan Callahan. The Caps, on the other hand …
The scuttlebutt around the league is that it’s a Cup or a pink slip for Boudreau, so if his team should again falter in the first round he may not make it to the postgame press conference podium. If the Rangers can steal a game or two in D.C. they can trigger all sorts of mind games for their opponents, and when the opposition starts pressing against the Blueshirts, that’s when the Rangers are the most dangerous. Quick goals and early wins will go a long, long way in this series for both teams.
In closing, a few links for you:
Scott Burnside presents his series preview.
For ESPN Insiders, here's a scouting report on how to beat the Caps from former NHL scout and GM Craig Button.
The Washington Post chats with both teams about the upcoming series. It includes a bit about how the Rangers 7-0 pummeling of the Caps in December actually helped. (Apparently that's when the Caps learned how to grab their ... never mind.)
Blueshirt Banter provides a statistical preview.
Andrew Gross provides some quotes from a Chris Drury teleconference.
And here's another look at the series via Jesse Spector.