I was convinced that the New York Rangers were destined for a first round match-up with the Boston Bruins. Ottawa did not hold up their end of the bargain by losing Saturday night at home to the Flyers. So the Rangers clinched the 6th spot in the Eastern Conference with their win against New Jersey yesterday. The Rangers will face the Washington Capitals in the playoffs for the 4th time in the last 5 years. That is very odd how these two teams have met so much in the postseason in recent years. In fact, in 2010 if the Rangers won their last game of the season in Philadelphia (the famous game that sent Philly to the playoffs on a shootout victory) the Rangers would of been the 8th seed facing the number 1 seeded Washington Capitals and it would of then been 5 for 5 in the last five seasons. Both these teams do know each other well and have met 3 times this season. The Rangers have gotten the better of the Capitals with a 2-0-1 record against them in the regular season. But both teams have had similar journey’s this year. All the way up to the beginning of April both teams were battling with each other to see what team would be the biggest bust. Both teams got off to a terrible start. The Rangers were hovering over .500 the entire season and could not get out of their own way. The trade deadline came and went with the Rangers making many important moves to bolster their line-up. The moves have paid off big time for the Rangers as the team has gone 9-3-1 since the deadline and 10-3-1 in the month of April. They are now in the 6th spot facing a Washington Capital team that no one thought would get into the playoffs the way they were going. The Capitals were 2-8-1 in their first 11 games and 12-16-1 by the 3rd week of March. Nothing was going right for Washington but quietly Alexander Ovechkin started to come on and the Capitals started to surge. Since the 12-16-1 start the Caps finished 15-2-2. Adam Oates got off to a horrible start but has gotten his team firing on all cylinders. Similar to the Rangers, the Caps problem was their players. Instead of dealing them out like the Rangers did to some, the Caps stuck with them and Oates finally meshed with his players. The Caps look like a totally different team from the start of the season. This certainly has the making to be a very fun series starting early this week. With this paragraph being your introduction, here is the entire breakdown of the series and everything you need to know.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
1) Alex Ovechkin-Who else would be on the top of this list? So much success rides on the way Alex Ovechkin plays. In Ovechkin’s first years in
the league the man was unstoppable. Dominating the competition and completely being too much to handle. Since the 2011 season Ovie’s game has tailed off a bit but he still scored 38 goals last year. Everyone thought he became like every other player in the league with the slow start he got off too especially this season. However since Ovie has been back on the right wing he has been on fire. He has scored 32 goals this regular season winning the Rocket Richard trophy for the 3rd time in his career. It is no secret that if Ovechkin plays the way he is playing it will be hard for the Rangers to stop him. Ovechkin has been playing some of the best hockey in his career in the last part of this season and if the Capitals want to win he needs to continue doing what he is doing.
2) Ryan McDonagh- Marc Staal is still injured for the Blueshirts. He has been the shutdown guy to face Ovechkin throughout the years these teams have met and has done a very good job. With Ovechkin playing on the right wing, Ryan McDonagh will have to be the guy to stop Alex Ovechkin. He is a very good shutdown defenseman and has had another productive year for the Blueshirts. The Rangers will have to rely on McDonagh to slow down and stop the “Great Eight”. If Ryan McDonagh can stop him, the Rangers will have an edge.
3) Mike Green- Mike Green has probably become the unsung hero for the Washington Capitals. His game has elevated incredibly since he came back from his injury. There is no secret with Mike Green. He is an incredible, lethal offensive defenseman who is most dangerous on the power play. Mike Green leads all defenseman in goals this year with 12. He is a dangerous weapon on the blue line. The goal for Washington will be to draw penalties and give Green the puck on the power play. Mike Green is not the best defensive defenseman however. Which is why the Capitals need him to be surging offensively throughout this series. Once again so much success relies on Mike Green’s offensive play for the Caps in this series.
4) Brad Richards-Forget this series, the Rangers have eyes on the Stanley Cup this year and if they are going to make any type of a run Brad Richards needs to be in the form he was in a year ago. Richards can be the ace in hole for the Rangers. If he gets his game going then the Rangers can do what they were expected to do before the season started. The good news about Brad Richards is that he has picked up his game in the month of April. He has 11 points in the last five games and looked awesome on a line with Nash and Zuccs on Saturday. The Bad news about Brad Richards though is that he has been pretty awful for most part of the season and his game still has regressed. Which Richards is going to show up in the playoffs? The good Brad Richards or the bad Brad Richards? The good one needs to show up if the Rangers want to have a deep playoff run and win the series.
GOALIE MATCH-UP: Henrik Lundqvist vs. Braden Holtby- When these two teams met in the Semis last year, both goalies were fantastic. Holtby came into the postseason shocking everyone by out-shining Tim Thomas and Boston in the first round last year. He got into the spotlight as does every hot goalie in the playoffs. In the second round the surging Braden Holtby met “the King”. In a very tight back and forth series, Henrik Lundqvist got the better of Braden Holtby in a Game 7 at the Garden. This year Hank leads the league with 24 wins and Holtby is tied for 2nd with 23. Both Holtby and Lundqvist’s play this season has been brilliant but over-shadowed by both teams under-achieving. If it was not for both these guys these teams probably would not have even made the playoffs. But they are in and both these goalies are a big reason why. As far as head-to-head, both of these net-minders will have a great series. If you had to choose one goalie for the series it is very difficult not to go with Lundqvist. The established veteran has proven himself through his competitive nature where he is very tough to beat. Nothing against Holtby, who will also be good in this series but Lundqvist gets the edge over Braden Holtby.
1.) Special Teams- This will decide the series in my opinion. The Capitals have the best power play in the league. Ranking #1 with a 26.8% it is almost certain if you give the Caps 4 power plays in a game they are going to capitalize on at least 1………at least. This team strives on offense and their power play is a big reason why. As for their penalty kill it is a different story. The Caps PK ranks 27th in the league with a 77.9 percentage. The Rangers power play for the year ranks 23rd in the league however since the trade deadline the power play for the Blueshirts has had a percentage of 25%. The Rangers penalty kill is very average. Ranked 15th in the league with an 81.1 percentage. Special teams will be more of a factor for the Capitals just because their whole game-plan focuses more on offense. But for the Rangers, special teams needs to be there. If the Rangers cannot convert on the power play and cannot kill off any penalties they could kiss the series goodbye. Whatever team executes more on special teams, that team will probably be the victor in this first round match-up.
2.) Ranger’s Injuries- The Rangers have four players that are injured right now who play a big role for this team. Those four players are Derek Dorsett, Ryane Clowe, Marc Staal, and Brian Boyle. Now Dorsett has been side-lined since he came to the Rangers so it has yet to be seen what type of role he plays in the line-up. But his addition could help for grittiness and on the penalty kill. As for Staal he was the best Ranger defenseman in the season before he suffered his injury. If he comes back that will pay off huge dividends for the Blueshirts as they have a better shot to shut down this Capital offense. As for Clowe he has been a big body for the Blueshirts. His physical presence is non-replaceable and has created a ton of offense since coming over from San Jose. He is great down low in the corners, a terrific passer and has scored for the Rangers. He will be missed if he cannot make a quick return but the player the Rangers will miss the most is Boyle. Brian Boyle isn’t very good offensively but it is his defense that is precious for the Rangers. His play in the defensive zone and his ability to win face-offs in the defensive zone could be something the Rangers desperately miss in this series. If the Rangers are completely healthy (which looks doubtful) they obviously have a much better chance to win the series. But it is the question of whether or not the team can be just as effective with these guys out of the line-up. We will find that question out within the next week.
3.) Capital’s Secondary Scoring-There is no question the Washington Capitals have a ton of depth. If you look at their line-up they are a very
scary team. I believe the Capital’s offense must continue to get the secondary scoring they got in the regular season. If you look at their numbers they have gotten contributions from everyone in the line-up and they need to continue to do so. Not only will the secondary scoring help give the Capitals more offense but it will take the pressure off their top guns. If the Capitals are only relying on Green, Ovechkin, Brouwer and Backstrom to score then the Rangers will have an easy job of shutting these guys down. But if everyone is equally effective offensively for Washington, the Rangers will have a tough job on defense. The Cap’s secondary scoring is key for them in this series.
PREDICTION: RANGERS IN 6- Let me be clear. I really have no idea who will win this series. Both teams are playing great hockey and I think as of now both teams have it in them to make a run at the cup. It is going to be extremely close. Another 7 game series can be potentially looming as well. I am going with the Rangers in 6 games however for the sole reason that defense wins championships. The Ranger defense has been better in the last week of the season than it has been all year. Not to mention they have Henrik Lundqvist in net. And as much as I have not been a fan of Tortorella this season with his “defense leads to offense scheme”, it is the Ranger defense that must prevail in order to beat Washington. Tortorella’s whole game-plan emphasizes defense too an extreme. I believe the Ranger defense and Henrik Lundqvist will get the better of Ovechkin and his offense.