Washington will go as far as Alex Ovechkin can take them, and the Rangers will be riding on the shoulders of “King” Henrik Lundqvist.
Both team’s seasons went in opposite directions after strong starts.
The Rangers started the season 18-8-2, and looked to be one of the favorites in the East. Their start was quickly nullified after going 2-11-1 from January 28 to February 26, and what once seemed to be a promising season was quickly on the verge of being disastrous.
The Rangers managed to make the playoffs, going from 12-6-1 from February 28 to the end of the season, and drew the unenviable task of trying to stop Alexander Ovechkin in the first round.
The Capitals started off the season 11-5-2, and continued to chug along until December.
Washington then went on a torrid pace, going 27-10-2 from December 2 to February 28, and elevating themselves to elite status around the league.
A heavy favorite to advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, it may be an often overlooked attribute that gives New York a fighting chance in what should be an exciting first round matchup.
(2) Washington Capitals, 50-24-8 (108 points)
The Capitals are the third highest scoring team in the league, and will look to use their second ranked power play to take advantage of New York’s stingy defense.
Washington’s run-and-gun style makes them a tough team to contain, but it also makes them very vulnerable to counter-attacks.
The Capitals gave up 245 goals on the year, ranking 19th in the league, and despite the Rangers futility, they were 28th in goals scored on the season, they should have several odd-man rushes that could create much needed scoring chances.
Washington will rely on their goal-scoring phenom, and Hart Trophy candidate, Alex Ovechkin to carry them to the promise land.
Winner of the Maurice “Rocket” Richard Trophy—again—Ovechkin led the league with 56 goals on the season. Ovechkin also finished three points behind Evgeni Malkin (113 points) for the Art Ross Trophy as the NHL’s top scorer.
While Ovechkin is the face of the NHL, and the most serious scoring threat in the league, he will not be the most important person on the Capitals roster in this series.
That honor belongs to Jose Theodore.
The Caps have four players who broke the 70-point barrier this season: Ovechkin (110 points), Nicklas Backstrom (88 points), Alexander Semin (79 points), and Mike Green (73 points).
With five different players scoring 20 or more goals on the season, Brooks Laich joins the aforementioned four, scoring is the least of Washington’s worries.
Theodore, on the other hand, will be on a short leash with coach Bruce Boudreau not hesitating to put in rookie Simeon Varlamov should things go south.
Theodore, who won first round playoff series in 2002, ’04, and just last season with Colorado, did not crack the top 30 among NHL goaltenders in goals against average or save percentage.
Washington will register goals, albeit few and far between against New York’s stud net-minder, but their success will hinder greatly on which Jose Theodore decides to show up in net come crunch time.
(7) New York Rangers, 43-30-9 (95 points)
The Rangers possess one of the league’s stingiest defenses.
Their top-ranked penalty killing unit could prove to be the deciding factor in the series if they can shut down Washington’s second ranked power play.
Despite a high payroll, the Rangers lack the ability to score; they have scored the fewest goals of any playoff team at 210, and Columbus is closest to that total at 226.
Along with that futility, only Columbus has a worse power play (12.7 percent) than New York’s 13.7 percent.
To make matters worse, only Columbus and Montreal join the Rangers in having a losing record on the road during the course of the regular season. This, of course, is important considering the Capitals have home-ice advantage as the conference’s No. 2 seed.
New York’s leading scorers, Scott Gomez and Nikolai Zherdev, scored a mere 58 points on the season. To make matters worse, Markus Nasland led the Rangers with a pedestrian 24 goals.
The Rangers offensive futility is well documented, but it is more than made up for by the stellar play of their all-star goalie.
Henrik Lundqvist finished the season with a 2.43 goals against average, and a .916 save percentage. His 38 wins ranked fourth in the league, and the Rangers will continue to push forward as long as Lundqvist roams between the pipes.
New York’s defense is among the best in the league, and they had a very successful season holding Alexander Ovechkin in check.
Despite losing the season series three games to one, Ovechkin was limited to five points in those four games. If you were to take away Ovechkin’s three-point performance Dec. 23, the Rangers held the defending Hart Trophy winner to two points in three games.
This does not bode well for Washington, and could ultimately pay huge dividends for New York if the mixture of Sean Avery and New York’s stifling defense begin to wear on Ovechkin mentally.
While the key player in this series could be Washington’s net-minder Jose Theodore, the most important matchup will be whether or not Washington’s stellar power play can solve New York’s stubborn penalty kill.
The one attribute that could come into play, which was mentioned earlier, is the amount of experience the Rangers have in comparison to Washington.
The Capitals have only last year’s heartbreaking seven-game series on their playoff resume, the young core at least, while New York has been to the playoffs every year since the lockout and has twice advanced to the second round.
While it is often overlooked, experience can come into play on extreme levels when the intensity of playoff hockey hits.
The Rangers will be better prepared to weather the initial surge of excitement the Capitals will generate. If they can keep things close, they may be able to capitalize on some inexperience based errors Washington may, and will, make.
In the end, it doesn’t really matter if you can’t put the points on the board.
I see Washington winning this series in five games, but don’t be surprised if this series finds itself in a seventh game if Theordore under-performs and New York capitalizes on Washington’s inexperience.