Hey, remember when the Washington Capitals were spiraling towards a complete blowing up of their roster and Alex Ovechkin was being called a “former star?”
Of course you do. It was, like, two months ago. Now they’re Southeast Division champs (again) and Alex Ovechkin is an MVP candidate (again) … and they’re playing the New York Rangers in the playoffs.
The fourth meeting in five years between the Caps and the Blueshirts pits a resurgent Washington team, with yet another new coach, against a Rangers team that added Rick Nash and still boasts arguably the best goalie alive.
Washington Capitals (3) vs. New York Rangers (6)
May 2: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals, 7:30 p.m. ET.
May 4: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals, 12:30 p.m. ET.
May 6: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, 7:30 p.m. ET.
May 8: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers, 7:30 p.m. ET
May 10: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals, * TBD
May 12: Washington Capitals at New York Rangers * TBD
May 13: New York Rangers at Washington Capitals, * TBD
The Capitals were fifth in the NHL with 3.04 goals per game, thanks in no small part to the Herculean effort from Ovechkin down the stretch. He had 23 goals in his final 23 games, along with 13 assists, playing himself square into Hart Trophy contention. Marcus Johansson and Nicklas Backstrom join him on the top line, with the latter having found his groove not coincidentally the same time as Ovechkin.
For most of the season, Mike Ribeiro was the Capitals’ best forward, finishing with 49 points in his contract year. Troy Brouwer had a stellar year with 19 goals, seven on the power play, and truculent play. Deadline acquisition Martin Erat has given the Caps more speed and some presence around the net.
The third line of Jason Chimera, Mathieu Perreault and Eric Fehr has been a consistently good energy line. Speaking of energy: Matt Hendricks is one of the League’s best spark plugs.
The Rangers were 15th in the NHL at 2.62 goals per game. Rick Nash was as-advertised: 21 goals in 44 games, leading the Rangers. He’s on a line with Mats Zuccarello, a nice late-season re-addition, and Brad Richards, who struggled mightily through the season before closing with 11 points in six games.
The top line for the Rangers is led by their breakout star this year: Derek Stepan, who led the team with 44 points and caught fire in April. Matched with Carl Hagelin and Ryan Callahan, they’re a solid two-way line.
Ryane Clowe was injured late in the season, but remains a power forward who could be a difference-maker in a series where physicality is essential for beating the Caps. Ditto the also-injured Brian Boyle, who’s working his way back as well.
Derek Brassard has rediscovered his game after being acquired in the Marian Gaborik deal, and is playing on a line with Taylor Pyatt. Chris Kreider remains an X-factor: a bust this season, he was a playoff darling in 2012. Players like Darroll Powe, Arron Asham and Micheal Haley bring truculence down the lineup.
Big question mark: Derek Dorsett, acquired in the Gaborik deal but yet to play for the Rangers. He's a gritty pain-in-the-backside player.
The Capitals had a goals against average of 2.71, good for No. 18 in the NHL
Coach Adam Oates broke up the Karl Alzner/John Carlson pairing after years of effective play. It’s worked: Alzner has helped propel Mike Green back into elite offensive defenseman status, with 26 points in 35 games. Carlson’s had a strong second half of the season, and his paring with big John Erskine has to led to arguably the latter’s best season in Washington. Jack Hillen is a good puck mover, but his pairing with Steven Olesky is by far the Capitals’ weakest.
The Rangers had a goals against average of 2.25, good for No. 4 in the NHL. Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonough form an elite shutdown pairing than can also score. Girardi is playing 25:24 TOI on average. Michael Del Zotto has 21 points, but remains a defensive liability at times. Anton Stralman was a plus-14. Former Cap Steve Eminger appeared in 35 games and was a plus-9, while former Blue Jacket John Moore has a been a revelation in New York after the Gaborik trade.
The X-factor in all of this: Marc Staal, recovering from a puck to the eye, and a series-altering player should he return.
ADVANTAGE: Without Staal – Capitals. With Staal – Even.
Braden Holtby got off to a mediocre start for the Capitals, but recovered nicely to post a 2.58 GAA and a .920 save percentage in winning 23 of 36 appearances. He posted a 1.90 GAA against the Rangers last postseason – but that was with a Dale Hunter defense in front of him. Michal Neuvirth is a capable backup.
Henrik Lundqvist could again be among the finalist for the Vezina Trophy after posted a 2.05 GAA and a .926 save percentage in what was considered an off year for the King. He’s traditionally strong in the earlier rounds of the postseason. The Rangers’ MVP, without question.
Does Their Season Deserve an Asterisk?
The Rangers barely made the playoff cut, but one imagines their footing would have been more solid had Lundqvist had a full run. His second half of the season was superb.
The Capitals, meanwhile, might never have slumped had Adam Oates been given a full preseason. But who knows how 82 games would have affected Alex Ovechkin, who was clearly motivated by the ticking clock on the regular season in carrying the Caps?
Adam Oates is in his first year behind the bench, but should be familiar with the Rangers after serving as a New Jersey Devils assistant, including during last season’s conference finals win. Still, it’s the first time his system gets a look in the postseason, against a stingy Rangers team.
John Tortorella gets all the attention for his tension-filled relationship with the media, which misses he big picture: He’s a damn good coach who simply knows how to deflect attention to himself during the pressure-filled playoffs.
The Capitals boasted the best power play in the NHL season at 26.8 percent, while the Rangers’ kill was 15th at 81.1 percent. The Rangers power play was 23rd overall at 15.7 percent, while the Capitals’ kill was an atrocious 27th at 77.9 percent. But, based on the Caps’ power play …
Never not gonna post THE CAPS RAP …
... vs. the NY Rangers Victory Song!
Rangers in 7.
The Rangers have been a playoff team that’s needed that one goal to get them a critical series win. That’s why Rick Nash is here. Combined with a veteran team that’s playoff proven and Lundqvist in goal, they’ll have enough to tame Ovechkin’s line and weather the Capitals’ power play. Both teams are playing great hockey. But once again, the Caps falter on home ice in a Game 7.