Henrik Lundqvist and the New York Rangers will take on Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and it is a series that will be chock full of action and excitement.
This will be the fourth meeting in five years between the two teams, with the most recent meeting being a second-round matchup in 2012. Both teams ended the year on hot streaks, but what team will have the edge in the first round?
The Rangers defeated the Capitals in the season series 2-1, with an aggregate score of 8-4. The Capitals' only victory against the Blueshirts came via the shootout, and they were given an extra goal for being victorious. Two of the three meetings were close, but the Rangers ultimately had the edge against the Capitals, and a reason for that was limiting Ovechkin's effectiveness.
During the season series of three games, Ovechkin registered a lone goal and assist for two points. He generally is kept off the score sheet when the Rangers and Capitals meet, and that is because Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi are able to effectively shut him down whenever he is on the ice.
The Rangers may have won the season series, but here is an in-depth look at each category and how it could impact this first-round series.
When looking at the overall statistics, it would be easy to say Washington has a clear-cut advantage, but things are closer than they appear. Throughout the year, the Rangers' offense has made sizable improvements, and they enter the playoffs as one of the hottest offensive teams in the league. During the month of April, the Rangers scored 52 goals in 14 games, and that equates to 3.71 goals per game.
This was on the heels of the Rangers' top stars picking up their offensive games. For a good look at both team's offenses, here is how each team's top four scorers produced during the month of April.
|Derek Stepan||8||11||19||Alex Ovechkin||14||8||22|
|Brad Richards||6||10||16||Nicklas Backstrom||2||15||17|
|Ryan Callahan||7||9||16||Mike Ribeiro||2||12||14|
|Rick Nash||9||5||14||Troy Brouwer||6||1||7|
Overall, when you do the math it is pretty much a dead heat. The Rangers' top four scored an aggregate 67 points, and the Capitals' top four scored 60 points. If you factor in trade deadline acquisitions, the Rangers would get an edge as Derick Brassard, John Moore and Ryane Clowe have outscored Martin Erat by a point total of 26 to 3.
Overall, both sides each have a top threat and solid secondary players, but there is no clear advantage in offense. This isn't going to be like the past when the Rangers were solely relying on one or two players, because this year the Rangers will have multiple threats.
GM Glen Sather made moves at the deadline that added depth and flexibility, and the Rangers' offense should be able to keep up with the Capitals during the playoffs.
During the regular season, the Rangers surrendered the fourth-fewest total goals and the fourth-fewest goals per game. The Capitals finished 17th in goals allowed per game with 2.71, and 18th in total goals surrendered. Playoffs games are generally low-scoring affairs, because referees don't like to have penalties decide games. Due to this fact, the Rangers could have an edge in the playoffs. Based on the way both teams played during the regular season, the Rangers were the stronger defensive team, and that is an edge that could make a difference in the playoffs.
Throughout the year the Rangers were more effective at limiting an opponent's offense, and that gives them the advantage in this series. The defensive pairings of McDonagh, Girardi, Moore, Anton Stralman and Michael Del Zotto have played well all year, and they will receive a boost when Marc Staal returns.
The Capitals have had solid play from John Carlson, Karl Alzner and John Erskine all year, but the other roles have been like a rotating door because of numerous injuries. Although the fill-ins have played well, they don't match up very well against the Rangers' defense that has been rolling throughout April.
This area is an advantage for the Capitals, but it could go both ways in the playoffs. Although the Capitals had the best regular-season power play, converting on 26.8 percent of all attempts, the team also had the fourth worst PK unit in the NHL. The Capitals only killed 77.9 percent of penalties throughout the year, and that is something that could hurt them in the playoffs if the Rangers' offense keeps producing.
The Rangers as a whole had an average PK unit with an 81.1 efficiency rating—15th in the NHL—and a below average power play with a 15.7 percent efficiency rate. If the Rangers take penalties during the playoffs, it will hurt them. And if they are on the power play during the playoffs, they will need to execute.
The Rangers have an advantage in goaltending, and Henrik Lundqvist has played amazing as of late. During the month of April, Lundqvist posted a 10-2-1 record with a 1.76 GAA and a .934 save percentage. He is going to need to keep up his level of play in the playoffs, but he has been improving all year long. Lundqvist has a Vezina Trophy to his name, playoff experience and he will be very important to the team during the playoffs.
The Capitals have received quality goaltending from Braden Holtby, and he has been very good in April. Holtby has a record of 9-1-0 during the month with a GAA of 2.16 and a .937 save percentage, and that is an improvement from his play earlier in the season.
Goaltending could determine this series, and having the league's top goaltender gives the Rangers an advantage.
Both teams are playing tremendous hockey as of late, but the Rangers will win this series, and here are the reasons why.
1) Offense is getting hot at the right time.
In the past the Rangers hasve slipped by through the playoffs with strong defense and goaltending, but this year they are heading into the playoffs with a productive offense. Having lines that are finally clicking, they will be tougher to beat in the playoffs.
2) Lundqvist is playing the best hockey of his career.
Right now Lundqvist is playing the best hockey of his career, and his April numbers back that up. The Rangers have leaned on him to be the team's backbone in the past, but this year the team is giving him more goal support so he doesn't have to be perfect every night.
3) Rangers' newfound scoring depth.
At the trade deadline the Rangers traded for Brassard, and they re-signed Mats Zuccarello to a one-year contract. Those moves, coupled with the better play of Richards, Stepan, Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin have allowed the Rangers to roll balanced scoring lines. These lines are better than what they had against the Capitals during last year's playoff matchup, and that will ultimately give them an advantage. Clowe and Derek Dorsett will likely be back for the first round, and that should give the lineup an immediate boost.
The Rangers defeated the Capitals during the season series, and they were able to beat them last year in the playoffs, so it is obvious that the Rangers have the Capitals' number. When you factor in that the Rangers match up well against the Capitals, the Rangers' improved offense, their stellar goaltending as of late and their consistent defense, they will win this series in six games.
This is just one opinion on the Rangers vs Capitals series, and if you would like to see another, check out Franklin Steele's opinion on the upcoming series.