Alexander Ovechkin’s torrid pace helped the Caps post an 8-1-1 record in their final 10 regular-season games, but it hasn’t been all about Ovi. Mike Green’s reemergence and goaltender Braden Holtby’s solid play have helped Washington go from Eastern Conference basement dwellers to legitimate contenders.
Although the Rangers also finished up their regular season strong—7-3-0 in their final 10—the Capitals were considered the favorites on the eve of Game 1. If the Rangers are to have a shot at toppling the rampant Caps they’ll have to not only neutralize Ovechkin and the rest of Washington’s high-octane offense, but they’ll also have to overwhelm Holtby, who nearly denied them last spring when the two teams met in the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
For that to happen, not only does the team have to perform well as a whole, but a host of individual players will need to take their games to another level.
There are five Rangers in particular who will be leaned on heavily throughout the course of the series, and their ability to handle the pressure will determine whether or not the Rangers come out on top.
Let’s take a look at those five and discuss why they are the most important players for the Rangers against the Caps.
Although the Rangers made it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2011-12, they still had filling out to do. Their lack of consistent offense forced general manager Glen Sather to seek out and acquire an additional top-end offensive threat.
Rick Nash was his answer.
2013 has been a success for Nash—21 goals, 21 assists for 42 points in 44 regular-season games—but it’s playoff season now, and if he can’t produce in the big time all his regular-season successes will be long forgotten.
Nash is the Rangers’ biggest offensive threat, and he will have to match Ovechkin’s pace and production in this series. If he can’t, the Rangers will be short on goals and ultimately lose the series.
The Capitals have a deep defensive cast, and beating them will not be easy, but Nash has the size, speed and skill to do so. His game-breaking ability will prove invaluable if he can deliver.
No team in the playoffs will find success if their offensive leader is under performing. The Rangers are no different.
Last year when these two clubs met in the postseason, it was Rangers defenseman Dan Girardi who carried the burden of shadowing Ovechkin, and although he’ll remain important this year, too, much more of the load will fall onto Ryan McDonagh’s shoulders.
Ovechkin spent his first seven seasons in the NHL on the left wing, which is actually his off-side. The common tactic of playing the opposite swing allows players like Ovechkin to streak into the offensive zone with more net to shoot at. Ovechkin’s new coach Adam Oates, who is not a fan of said tactic, has, from the start of the season, forced Ovi to play on the right side, which allows him to better protect the puck.
What all of this means is that when No. 8 crosses the Rangers’ blue line this year, it’ll be McDonagh, a lefty, taking him on instead of Girardi, a right-sided defenseman.
It’s a tall order for a 23-year-old, but McDonagh is more than capable. He’s an immense skater with a strong core and exceptional understanding of the game. He’s also hungry and ambitious; there’s no doubt he’ll relish the opportunity.
McDonagh will make mistakes, because that’s the nature of the game, but the kid has the tools and drive to make a minimal amount of them, which is good because Ovechkin is a player who’ll make you pay for even the smallest of blemishes.
Even though the Rangers need Nash to have a dominant playoff, they can’t rely on just one player or even one line to score goals. Offensive depth is an absolute must, and that’s where Derek Stepan comes in.
Nash and Stepan were highly effective at it as a duo for most of the regular season, but coach John Tortorella’s decision to split them up late in the term could turn out to be an important one.
Nash should have no problem producing on his own, so the Rangers know they’ll have one dangerous line, but with Stepan centering a different group, the Blueshirts could have two top lines.
The organization has had high hopes for Stepan since it drafted him in the second round of the 2008 NHL entry draft, and it has to be satisfied with the way he’s performed in 2013.
Nearly every aspect of his game has improved; there’s more power behind his shot, his skating has made great progress and his already developed defensive and playmaking abilities have reached another level.
Not only will he be relied upon for additional offensive production, but look for him to play big minutes against the Capitals’ top unit in a shut-down capacity.
There’s a reason Ryan Callahan is the captain of the New York Rangers, and it’s because he’s the physical embodiment of everything that is New York hockey.
His blue-collar, relentless attitude has not only immortalized him among the Blueshirt’s faithful, but it’s provided the team with an excellent role model and leader. His ability to kick start the team’s game when they come out flat is one of the reasons the Rangers are in the playoffs this season.
They’re going to need Callahan to do the same against the Caps, too. It’s imperative that he comes out and sets the tone early in every game, so that the Rangers get the jump on a very talented Washington club.
His defensive prowess will also prove to be invaluable. He is an expert penalty killer, and considering the Caps have the best power-play unit in the league, the Rangers are going to need Callahan to dig even deeper and continue to sacrifice his body.
Furthermore, as I stated earlier, Callahan and Stepan’s line will probably get a lot of Ovechkin face time, so The Captain will play just as big of a role defending even strength as he will on the penalty kill.
For eight years, Henrik Lundqvist has been the Rangers’ most important player, and on the current roster, nobody even comes close to him.
2011-12’s Vezina Trophy winner has been the world’s best goaltender for several years, and after a rocky start to 2013, he’s back on top of his game. And that’s just where the Rangers need him, seeing as their first-round opponents were the third-highest scoring team during the regular season.
The team’s in-zone collapsing and lackluster defense suggests it’ll undoubtedly be under siege often throughout the series. Lundqvist will need to stand on his head at times just to keep the Rangers in the game.
Goal support has also been hard to come by, and that just puts more pressure on Lundqvist to make little or no mistakes. If he lets up a pair of early goals, the Rangers will be all but defeated.
Lundqvist is one of the most motivated players not only on this team, but in the league, so the chances of him coming out unprepared are nearly zero. When you pair that drive with his talent he’s basically unstoppable, and that’s exactly what the Rangers need him to be if they’re to have a shot at cooling down the red-hot Capitals.