The New York Rangers didn't just tie up their first-round playoff series 2-2 when they beat the Washington Capitals 4-3 Wednesday night. They served notice that they may be a dark-horse team the rest of the way in the playoffs should they advance and beat the Capitals.
Washington had already reached dark-horse level when it won the first two games of the series at home. The Caps finished the regular season on a major roll, climbing from last in the Eastern Conference to the Southeast Division title.
They rode the explosive goal scoring of Alex Ovechkin and the clutch goaltending of Braden Holtby to key their surge. But they also had the secondary support of Mike Ribeiro, Nicklas Backstrom and a hard-hitting defense.
The Caps are a punishing team who drive the net well. They have been especially strong at home (15-8-1 in the regular season; 2-0 in the playoffs), and if the Rangers are going to win this series, they are going to have to pick up a road victory in the fifth or seventh game.
Normally, that might be very difficult for New York. It scored just one goal in the first two games of the series, and a lack of scoring has been the biggest problem for the Rangers throughout the season.
But in the two games in New York, they scored four goals each time.
We'll give that a minute to sink in. The Rangers scored four goals two games in a row.
That's significant because the Rangers have the best goalie in the world playing for them. Henrik Lundqvist won the Vezina Trophy last year, and he was named a finalist for the award this year.
There are other goalies who are superb and could probably give Lundqvist a run for his money, but he is the best money goalie in the league. With just a bit of offense, he has a chance to carry his team a long way.
Now Lundqvist can look out in front of him and see that he is getting goal-scoring support from Carl Hagelin, Brad Richards, Derek Stepan and Dan Girardi. That gives Lundqvist legitimate confidence in his offensive teammates.
Should the Rangers win this series, they could match up with the Pittsburgh Penguins—if they can overcome the pesky New York Islanders. The Penguins would appear to have a major edge on the Rangers because they have so many scoring options.
But look at the other part of the game. Starting goalie Marc-Andre Fleury looks like a basket case at this point in the playoffs. He will sit on the bench in Game 5 of the Islanders-Penguins series (tied 2-2) in favor of Tomas Vokoun.
The Rangers would have a huge edge in goal on the Penguins. If they can beat the Caps, they will go into the second round with more confidence than they had all year.
The Caps could very easily match up with the fourth-seeded Boston Bruins (up 3-1 over the Toronto Maple Leafs) in the second round. The Caps beat the Bruins in seven games in last year's postseason and also beat the Bruins in two out of three regular-season games this year.
The Bruins would not be intimidated by Washington, but they would have to play their best hockey of the year to beat Adam Oates' big and physical team.
It seems likely that neither the Rangers nor the Capitals will be favored in upcoming playoff series to advance any further. However, both teams have the wherewithal to keep on winning. They play honest, straightforward and hard-hitting hockey.
But while either of these teams could make a real postseason run, I favor the Rangers because they have the superior goaltending with Lundqvist. He finally appears to be getting the goal scoring he has needed all season.
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