Could Rangers upset Caps in playoffs?
If the Washington Capitals learned anything from last year’s first-round playoff upset, it's to not take opponents for granted. This is a lesson the Caps will need to bring to the table as they face the No. 8 seed New York Rangers.
The Rangers represent a serious danger to the Caps’ chance to advance closer to a Stanley Cup championship — a feat the team has never achieved — while this matchup represents a chance at redemption for the Rangers, who blew a 3-1 series lead against the Caps in 2009.
There is no refuting the Capitals have an offensive style of play and fare well in that style, but is it enough to shut down the Rangers? Of the four times the teams met this season, the Rangers took home the victory in three, outscoring the Caps 15-1 in those games and 18-6 overall.
The Rangers have also managed to completely shut down Caps’ scoring powerhouse, Alex Ovechkin. Against the Rangers, Ovechkin tallied only two assists and had a minus-1 rating this season, but any time Ovi is on the ice he presents a threat. Even though his productivity decreased from last season, he still leads the Caps in points with 85 — 32 goals and 53 assists — and has Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Knuble and Alexander Semin to look to for offensive help.
The Rangers' offense delivers no true superstar. Many might see this as a disadvantage, but the lack of a superstar has allowed the Rangers to gain depth throughout the lineup. The team is filled with young players and rookies, eight of whom never played in a postseason game. Whether the Blueshirts have the No. 1 line or the No. 4 line on the ice, they are constantly creating scoring opportunities.
A big shortcoming in the Rangers’ game is having Ryan Callahan sidelined because of a broken leg. Callahan has been a force to be reckoned with this season, and the team will miss not only his productivity in the postseason but also his leadership.
In the defensive zone, the Rangers have do-it-all defensemen Dan Girardi, who has sacrificed his body all year and led the NHL in blocking shots, with 236; feisty Michael Sauer, who has a plus-20 rating; and Marc Staal, who has significantly upped his offensive game.
The Caps have defenseman Mike Green, who is an all-around player with a strong ice presence. Unfortunately for the Caps, Green has been out since Feb. 25 because of a concussion. But Coach Bruce Boudreau said Green will be available for Game 1, giving the Caps a boost in their defense.
When it comes to goaltenders, I give a slight advantage to the Rangers. The Capitals' major weakness is, and has been for some time, its goaltending.
The Caps have three young netminders they can turn to in the playoffs. The conundrum is who to pick.
Like any players, Semyon Varlamov, Michal Neuvirth and Braden Holtby have their strengths and weaknesses. Varlamov is the best athlete and has postseason experience. The problem is he can let in some cheap goals. Neuvirth has played the majority of the season and is more technically sound. In addition, he won back-to-back Calder Cups with Hershey. But he’s never played a playoff game at the NHL level. Holtby is on a hot streak and is a better puck handler, but he has no playoff experience on any level and is still a young player learning the game.
Even with their up-and-downs, all three goalies have combined to lead the Caps to a 48-23-11 record, showing they are capable of solid goaltending.
New York's Henrik Lundqvist is coming off a season in which he established new career highs with a .923 save percentage and a NHL-best 11 shutouts. He had a 2.28 goals-against average. Lundqvist has played in the Rangers' past 26 games, and, in order to stand a chance in the playoffs, he will have to play on little rest. As much as the Rangers have depth in the offensive zone, the team lacks depth in the goalie department, and Lundqvist is the only option for the Rangers to turn to in high-pressure situations.
Both teams have something to play for. The Caps want to shed the image of a team that can’t perform in the postseason; the Rangers look to further develop the team as a cohesive unit through the playoff experience.
The Rangers' gritty, hard-hitting style of play and the Caps' aggressive, offensive power will make this match up one to watch.
Prediction: Rangers in six