Second-round preview: Rangers-Caps
This will mark the third time since 2009 that these two teams will meet in the playoffs, but the circumstances could hardly be different. In 2009 and 2011, the Capitals were the distinct favorites, while the Rangers were a team that seemed to be simply a tier below the Caps. In 2009, the Rangers blew a 3-1 series lead and lost in seven, while last spring the No. 1-seeded Caps handled the eighth-seeded Rangers in five games.
This year, the two teams will meet after emerging from grueling seven-game sets in the first round. The Rangers, the top seed, had all they could handle with Ottawa, finally winning Game 7 by a 2-1 count. The Capitals, meanwhile, defeated Boston in a series that saw a league-record seven straight one-goal games. The finale, in Boston on Wednesday, featured Joel Ward playing the hero in overtime as the Caps beat the defending Stanley Cup champs by a 2-1 count.
This series could well be a mirror image of that Caps-Bruins series given that both teams rely heavily on great goaltending and a stifling defense. Both teams have had to win without big guns Marian Gaborik and Alex Ovechkin being dominant, but so far that hasn't been a problem. For the first time in this rivalry, the Capitals will be significant underdogs and that suits their current personality under head coach Dale Hunter.
"If they can beat Boston, they can beat anyone," one Eastern Conference executive said of the Caps.
1. Heroic Holtby: You have to wonder what rookie Braden Holtby, from Lloydminster, Saskatchewan, will do for an encore after outdueling the defending Vezina and Conn Smyth winner, Tim Thomas, in the first round. Holtby's poise and nerviness suggest that he's not going to let his early playoff success go to his head. What has been most impressive is that in those rare moments when he has not been at his best, he hasn't allowed it to affect him beyond that moment.
The Caps trailed 1-0 and 2-1 in their series against the Bruins, and Holtby always managed to rebound with a solid performance, ending up with three wins on the road. That held true in Game 7 when the Caps were outplayed through the first half of the game, but Holtby was solid.
Things don't get any easier for him, though, as he will be facing Vezina Trophy nominee Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist will be looking to move beyond the second round for the first time in his career and was a rock in Game 7 as the Rangers hung on in the face of a furious push by Ottawa. On paper this looks like a mismatch, but that's what the paper said in the first round.
2. Score By Committee: Both these teams are going to count on offense by committee to wear down their opponents. That means contributions from everywhere are going to be key. Matt Hendricks, for instance, had a big goal in Game 7 for the Caps. Meanwhile, the Rangers' blue line, so important to the team's success during the regular season, has been terrific through the first seven games this spring. In Game 7, it was Marc Staal and Dan Girardi providing all the offense the Rangers would need. In all, nine different Rangers chipped in goals in the first round. Meanwhile, 11 different Caps scored at least once against Boston.
3. Oh, Ovie: Five Washington forwards logged more ice time than Ovechkin in Game 7, including defensive specialist Jay Beagle. This was a game in which the Caps needed to win, and to win, they needed to score. And still Ovechkin's presence was a mere blip on the game's radar. He admitted before Game 7 that it makes him angry sometimes when he doesn't get the ice time he's used to but all he wants to do is win. We believe him. Ovechkin is a fierce competitor and he knows that his legacy is tied up in how his teams perform, not necessarily how he performs as an individual. In the past, the two were inexorably tied -- at least that's how it seemed. Now, the Caps have proved they can win without Ovechkin leading the way. That said, Ovechkin did have his moments against Boston, just not that many. Long term, this is not an ideal situation given that Ovechkin is the face of the franchise and is under contract until the 2020-21 season. But as long as the Caps keep winning, we doubt either Ovechkin or the organization will mind too much. Does he need to do more against New York? Logic suggests yes, but recent history suggests maybe not.
4. Dale's World: Of all the coaches that started down the playoff path almost three weeks ago, Caps head coach Dale Hunter seemed at a distinct disadvantage. He'd never coached NHL players before arriving in Washington in late November and he was steadfast in his determination to make the Caps play his way, regardless of the feathers he ruffled along the way, including the feathers of his captain and veterans such as Mike Knuble and Ward. Nonetheless, GM George McPhee called this one of the most committed groups of Caps he has ever seen. Having bested Claude Julien, we doubt if Hunter will get flummoxed by facing another former Cup-winning coach in John Tortorella.
"[Hunter] runs the team, not the players," former GM and national analyst Craig Button told ESPN.com. "As it needs to be. Too much in the past, it was hoping the stars would carry the day. Now if your actions don't coincide with the plan, you don't play.
"That is how successful teams are run."
5. So Special: One of the keys for Washington in emerging from its seven-game tilt with the Boston Bruins was keeping the Bruins' power play at bay. The Bruins' power play managed to score just twice in 23 attempts, including going 0-for-3 in Game 7. Part of that is Holtby, of course, but this is a Caps team that has done an admirable job at clogging the shooting lanes and disrupting the flow of pucks in the offensive zone in general, and especially on the power play. The Rangers, meanwhile, are equally stingy, allowing just four goals on 26 attempts, including one in Game 7. Both teams have the personnel to be dangerous with the man advantage and, if one team can get that unit rolling, it could prove the difference.
• Gaborik-Richards-Hagelin versus Alzner-Carlson: With rookie Carl Hagelin back from suspension, he is likely to rejoin veteran linemates Gaborik and Brad Richards. While Richards, the Rangers' key offseason free agent acquisition has chipped in a couple of timely goals, Gaborik has been mostly silent, finishing with one goal and three assists. They are likely to see a lot of the Caps' top defensive pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, who were so successful in negating the Bruins' big guns David Krejci and Milan Lucic.
• Washington's Dennis Wideman: The Caps' representative at the All-Star Game suffered through a grisly series against Boston and was on the ice for eight of 12 even-strength Boston goals. The Rangers will try to exploit him, but he also has shown he can handle the puck and be a positive force offensively. Which will it be?
• New York's Chris Kreider: Kreider is the Rangers' first-round pick from 2009. The former collegiate star with Boston College made his debut in Game 3 and has had an immediate impact. Big and skilled, Kreider scored the game-winner in Game 6 and will be asked to do even more against the Caps.
• The Capitals aren't going to bring the speed that the Ottawa Senators did, but they are better on the back end, which means more close-checking competition ahead. Let's give the edge to Lundqvist. Rangers in six.
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