Stanley Cup Playoffs 2011: Predicting Rangers vs. Caps Series
By Guest Blogger AlanZlot:
The Washington Capitals will face-off tonight in the first round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs for the 22nd time in franchise history. If you know the Washington Capitals then you know all about their tumultuous playoff history.
Eight times in their tortured history, the Capitals have led a playoff series by two games and lost the series. Last year as the President’s trophy winner the Capitals became the first No.1 seed to lose a series to an eighth seed after leading three games to one.
Therefore, you must excuse me if this sounds like broken optimism heading into this year’s playoffs. I must admit that while I have predicted the Rangers to win the series on a few other sites, I will use this opportunity to find a way to show what the Caps can do to win.
To start with, the Rangers owned Alex Ovechkin and Co. this season. The Blue Shirts took three of four from the Caps and blasted them 15-1 in the final three games.
The Rangers are eerily similar to what Washington faced in last year’s first round. The Montreal Canadians struggled to get into the playoffs but played well down the stretch.
While no team played better hockey than the Caps down the stretch, the Rangers were 11-4-1 in their final 15 games and posted a 7-2 record against teams currently in the playoffs.
The Canadians beat the Caps with a historic goaltending performance from Jiroslav Halak and the Rangers posess one of the best goaltenders in the NHL in Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist shut the Caps out twice this season and led the NHL with 11 total whitewashes throughout the season. If he gets hot, then he is capable of winning a few games on his own. Lundqvist plays a style that gives the Caps fits. He stays back in his net and is very quick going side-to-side. This takes away the give-and-go’s Washington loves to employ deep in their zone.
Lundqvist is is 6-4 with a 2.73 goals-against average against the Caps in the Boudreau era. This includes two seasons where his goal against average versus the Caps was well above three.
The Capitals will apparently try to platoon rookie Michael Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov. While Varlamov battled injuries, Neuvirth battled his consistency. Despite the fact that he set the Caps single season rookie record with 27 wins, he was never able to full claim the No.1 spot.
Neuvy has plenty of playoff experience in the American Hockey League as he won two Calder Cup’s with the Hershey Bears. He was named playoff MVP two years ago but it remains to be seen if the 21-year-old can parlay AHL playoff success into NHL playoff consistency.
Varlamov has played 19 post-season games for Washington and did show he could handle the bright lights when he replaced Jose Theodore against these same Rangers two years ago. In that series, the led the way in net allowing the Caps to rally and win after being down three games to one.
Each has a knack for allowing the “soft goal” and each showed that knack several times down the stretch. One has to wonder how much confidence either has knowing that Boudreau never named a No.1 guy this season.
Edge: King Henrik and the Rangers
The Capitals recorded their best defensive season in franchise history. Washington set franchise records in goals against average (2.33) and goals allowed (191). Led by a mix of youth and experience the Caps are very effective at operating the 1-2-2 trap.
More than likely, Washington will head into the playoffs with Mike Green who has missed 20 games with a head injury and while he may not be in game shape just yet, his return will help bolster an already effective unit but depleted one to say the least. Led by rookie John Carlson and veteran Scott Hannan, the Caps did not miss a beat in Greens absence.
Karl Alzner and last year’s NHL plus-minus leader Jeff Schultz are consistent players that execute the system well for head coach Bruce Boudreau.
Washington does not carry an edge over New York as the Rangers ranked right behind the Capitals allowing just 2.38 goals per game. The Rangers have one of the best young blue liners in the game in 24-year-old Marc Staal. The third Staal brother in the NHL pairs with 26-year-old Dan Girardi as both put in about 25 minutes per game.
The Rangers youth continues with rookies Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh. While they have turned in good first seasons how they perform on the big stage in the NHL playoffs remains to be seen.
Edge: If the Caps get Mike Green, Tom Potti, and eventually Dennis Wideman back then the edge is not a close one. However, with Lundqvist in net and the uncertainty of the health at the blue line for Washington, a slight edge must go to New York.
The Capitals scored 99 less goals this season than did last season and team captain and leading scorer Alex Ovechkin finished with 26 less goals and 21 less points than his career averages. Washington boasts on paper, at least, the better offensive weapons.
Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin are all world players that can explode at any given time. Backstrom has been impressive in his past playoff performances with 30 points in 28 games.
Semin, as he tends to do during the regular season at times, has disappeared in the second season. He has just eight goals in 28 playoff games and failed to score one in last year’s first round collapse.
The Capitals will need to crash the net and Mike Knuble has been hot doing just that lately. Knuble finished out the season on a tear with nine goals in his final 13 games. Lundqvist can be frustrated in his own crease and Knuble is the man for the job.
While the Caps have star power, the Rangers still ranked higher than the Caps offensively this season. New York tallied six more goals than the Caps did and were led by Brandon Dubinsky who notched a career high 54 points. The Rangers also have Marian Gaborik who is the kind of player that can bust out in a post-season. He scored 22 goals and finished with 48 points this year.
The Rangers took a huge blow last Monday when they lost their second leading scorer Ryan Callahan. Callahan broke his leg in the Rangers comeback victory of the Bruins on April 5. The Rangers are still missing their team Captain Chris Drury, who has played in only 23 games this season because of finger and knee injuries. He has been out since undergoing knee surgery on Feb. 11.
The loss of Callahan is a series changer for Washington but keep in mind he missed 19 games in the middle of the season and the Rangers still managed to post a 10-7-2 record without him.
Edge: With the Great 8 and the star power the Capitals have, the edge must go to Washington. Without Callahan, the Rangers could be in more trouble than they care to admit.
The Capitals were the second best penalty-killing unit in the NHL this season. The Caps power play that ran away with the No. 1 ranking last year, struggled mightily this year. The Capitals went from November 26 until March 9 without scoring multiple power play goals. The 43-game span was a franchise record.
Washington did show signs of extra man life to close out the season. The Caps were 5-for-10 in their final four games of the season. The Capitals finished the season ranked 16th with the extra man converting 17.5 percent of their chances.
The Capitals were 27-3-4 when it scored a power play goal this past season and 14-0-2 when it scored one but did not allow an extra man tally.
The Rangers power play looked top notch at times but it looked anemic through some stretches where it just could not score. It finished 18th at 16.9 percent, but it showed some improvement after they acquired Bryan McCabe. The penalty-killing unit ranked in Top 10 (83.7 percent) and their 11 shorthanded goals ranked among Top 5 in the League.
Edge: Penalty killing is more important than power play goals in the playoffs. However another 1-for-33 performance from the Capitals and they will once again be watching from the golf course after the first round. This edge goes to Washington.
Something has to give in this series in terms of which team bucks the following trend.
The Rangers were a better road team than home team this year. New York won 58 percent of their games away from Madison Square Garden and just 48 percent when playing in it.
The Capitals were the best team in the Eastern Conference at home and second best team in the NHL when playing at the big phone booth in DC.
The Capitals will need to start fast in this series and must play Game 1 as if it were Game 7. Washington cannot afford to get behind in the series or in Game 1. However, the numbers indicate the Caps will do just that and with Lundqvist in goal, they can afford to play catch up.
Washington scored just 54 first-period goals this season and only the Edmonton Oilers scored less in the opening frame during the year.
However, Washington was an NHL-best 15-11-3 when they trailed after the first period and were 23-19-5 when allowing the first goal, also best in the NHL.
This stat catches up with teams this time of the year. I wonder, with last year’s result and the miserable playoff history of this franchise, can the Caps psyche handle falling behind early?
As the No.8 seed, the Rangers are playing with house money and have virtually nothing to lose as heavy under dogs in the eyes of many experts. The pressure sits squarely on the shoulders of the Capitals and Bruce Boudreau in this series.
Edge: With nothing to lose and only house money on the line, this edge goes to New York.
The Rangers have a coach in John Tortorella that won a Stanley Cup back in 2004 with the Tampa Bay Lightning. He asks a lot from them and they deliver. Tortorella demands a tough physical style of play, one suited for the playoffs.
Bruce Boudreau’s teams have been incredible in the regular season, as he has won almost 62 percent of his games. He took over a last place team in the middle of the 2007 season and has since won four straight division titles. His work during the regular season has been second to no other NHL head coach over the last four seasons.
Boudreau’s players also delivered for him as he completely got his super star laden team to buy into his defensive trapping style of play.
However, coaches are judged in the NHL on what they accomplish in the second season and Boudreau has not done much. His teams are 1-3 in game sevens and won only one playoff series in four tries.
Expectations are incredibly high in Washington, and Boudreau’s job, rightly or wrongly, could be in jeopardy if the Caps fail this year.
Edge: One Stanley Cup to none equals edge to the Rangers.
I am a huge Capitals fan and want very badly to pick the Capitals. I am leaning New York in seven games but I will leave it this way with my last breakdown of this matchup. The Capitals must either do or prevent the following four things in order to win this series.
- Win game one. Whoever starts in goal could get hot by simply winning the first game. The confidence the Capitals can gain as a team could erase last year quickly.
- Lose Game one. If they lose game one by more than two goals or lose after leading at any point then the head games could begin in the Caps locker room, especially after last year.
- Get to three goals. The Caps were 39-0-3 when scoring three or more goals this season.
- Washington must not convert less than (17.5 percent) what they are converting right now on the power play. If the Caps fail miserably once again with the extra man, they lose the series.
Two years ago, the Rangers had Washington on the brink of elimination and led the opening round series three games to one. They allowed the Caps to battle back and win in seven games.
The Rangers won both Games 1 and 2 in DC and then would essentially fall apart in losing the series. That Capitals were an end-to-end let it all hang out gunslinging bunch of goal scorers as they scored 15 goals in their four wins.
These Capitals are a defensive-minded bunch that does not score goals like that anymore. Let us hope that all of their hard work in transforming into a better playoff team pays off starting tomorrow night.
Good luck and “Rock the Red” Caps fans. This will not be as easy as many experts are predicting and if I am wrong and the Caps roll past the Rangers in five games, then this could be the start of something special. LET’S GO CAPS!