Sat Apr 28, 2012 Capitals Rangers TIME/TV: 3:00 PM NBC, CBC, RDS
Mon Apr 30, 2012 Capitals Rangers TIME/TV: 7:30 PM CBC, NBCSN, RDS
Wed May 2, 2012 Rangers Capitals TIME/TV: 7:30 PM NBCSN, CBC, RDS
Sat May 5, 2012 Rangers Capitals TIME/TV: 12:30 PM CBC, NBC, RDS
*Mon May 7, 2012 Capitals Rangers TIME/TV: 7:30 PM CBC, NBCSN, RDS
*Wed May 9, 2012 Rangers Capitals TIME/TV:TBD CBC, RDS
*Sat May 12, 2012 Capitals Rangers TIME/TV:TBD CBC, RDS
This will mark the third time since 2009 that these two teams will meet in the playoffs, but the circumstances could hardly be different. When the two teams played in 2009 and 2011, the Capitals were the distinct favourites, while the Rangers were a team that seemed to be simply a tier below the Caps during those season. But in 2009, the Rangers blew a 3-1 series lead and lost in seven, while last spring when the teams faced one another the then No. 1-seeded Caps handled the eighth-seeded Rangers in five games.
This year, the two teams will meet after emerging both from grueling seven-game sets in the first round. The Rangers, the NHLs top seed, had all they could handle with Ottawa Senators, finally winning Game 7 by a 2-1 count. The Capitals, meanwhile, defeated Boston Bruins in a series that saw a league-record seven straight one-goal games. The finale of the series, held in Boston on Wednesday, featured 2010 NHL playoff star 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. However, both of these teams have had to win without big guns Rangers Marian Gaborik and Capitals Alex Ovechkin being dominant, but so far this hasn’t been a problem for either team. For the first time in this rivalry, the Capitals will be significant underdogs and that suits their current personality under new Capitals head coach Dale Hunter.
Many will wonder what rookie Braden Holtby will do for an encore after outdueling Boston’s defending Vezina and Conn Smyth winner, Tim Thomas, in the first round. Holtby showed poise and any 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.
Even though 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 in each and every game.
Even with all this praise things don’t get any easier for him in the second round, though, as he will now be facing Hart and Vezina Trophy nominee Henrik Lundqvist. Rangers Lundqvist will be looking to move beyond the second round for the first time in his career and he was a rock in Game 7 as the Rangers hung on in the face of a furious push by the Ottawa Senators. On paper this looks like a mismatch, but that’s exactly what the paper said in the first round.
Both these teams are going to count on offense by committee to wear down their opponents. Which means contributions from everywhere are going to be key to winning the series. For instance, Matt Hendricks had the big goal in Game 7 for the Caps. While, the Rangers’ blue line, so important to the team’s success during the regular season, has continue to be 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 to win the game and the series. In all, nine different Rangers chipped in with goals in the first round. Meanwhile, 11 different Caps scored at least once against the Bruins.
In past seasons, you would never find the stat that had five Washington forwards logging more ice time than Ovechkin, especially in a Game 7, but in more crazy is that this list includes defensive specialist Jay Beagle. This was a game in which the Caps needed to win, and to win, they still needed to score. However, Ovechkin’s presence on the ice surface was a mere blip on the game’s radar. He did admit 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. So far you have to believe him. But 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. So he is being the good soldier. In the past, the two were inexorably tied, at least that’s how it seemed on the outside. 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, but he won’t be up against Chara either. 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.
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. So much there was strong buzz that after this playoff season, that Hunter would return to the London Knights in the Ontario Hockey League. 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.
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. Now part of that is the goal tending of 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.
With rookie Rangers Carl Hagelin back from suspension, he is likely to rejoin veteran linemates Gaborik and Brad Richards. While Richards, the Rangers’ top and 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 very successful in controlling the Bruins’ big guns David Krejci and Milan Lucic.
Dennis Wideman was the Caps’ lone representative at the All-Star Game but he suffered through a grisly series against Boston and was on the ice for eight of 12 even-strength Boston goals. The Rangers will continue to try to exploit him, but he also has shown he can handle the puck and be a positive force offensively. So which Wideman will it be for the Capitals?
Chris Kreider is the Rangers’ first-round pick from 2009. The former collegiate standout from Boston College made his debut in Game 3 and has had an immediate impact. The Rangers forward is 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 far better on the back end, which means more close-checking competition ahead. But in the end you have to give the edge to Lundqvist. And therefore, the edge to the Rangers in this series.
Smyth: Rangers in six.
Blais: Rangers in seven.
Jameson: Rangers in five.
Denstedt: Rangers in six.
Pinder: Rangers in seven.
Diceman: Rangers in seven.
Donnelly: Rangers in six.