5 Advantages the Caps Have Had in Their Series with the Rangers
After the Washington Capitals' nail-biting, but thrilling, 2-1 overtime win over the New York Rangers in Game 5 of their Eastern Conference quarterfinal series, the Caps now sit just one win away from advancing, yet again, to the Eastern Conference semifinals.
Gaining some revenge against the team that eliminated them a year ago would be rather sweet as well.
Not blowing a 2-0 series lead for the ninth time in their playoff history—yeah, that would be nice too.
Mike Ribeiro's game-winning goal secured the 3-2 series lead for the Caps, but the Caps would not be in this position were it not for their making the most of the advantages they have held over the Rangers as this series has progressed.
How have the Caps grabbed the lead in this series, with a chance to end things on Sunday in New York?
Let's take a look at the five main advantages the Caps have held in this series.
1. The Caps Are the Healthier Team
When this series started, the New York Rangers already had some injury issues to deal with.
Marc Staal had been dealing with a serious right eye injury ever since being struck in the eye by a deflected shot back on March 5 (h/t newsday.com). Stall's return in Game 3 of the series gave the Rangers a needed emotional lift—but it might not have been the best of moves on Staal's part.
Now media outlets such as SBNation.com are reporting that Staal is likely done for the rest of this first-round series against the Caps, a huge loss for a Rangers team that now has their collective backs to the wall.
It gets worse for the Rangers. Ryan Clowe, who had been playing so well for the Rangers since coming to New York from San Jose, had been day-to-day since the end of April.
Clowe had a big assist in Game 3. But when things got very physical in Game 5, Clowe suffered a setback. He was boarded by Jason Chimera and played only one more shift before being done for the night (Eh/t SPN).
Without Clowe and Staal, the Rangers' uphill climb grows even more steep in Game 6.
Now, this is not to say that the Caps are injury free. Far from it. They are still without Brooks Laich, and Martin Erat suffered an injury in Game 4 and did not play in Game 5 (h/t SBNation.com).
Nevertheless, the Caps got lucky prior to the series starting when Joel Ward returned to the lineup. Ward has a goal, three assists and a plus-one rating for the Caps in this series. His game-tying goal in Game 5 really seemed to turn the momentum of the game, and perhaps the series, around.
When Erat went down, what did the Caps do? They decided to bring up Tom Wilson from Hershey and let the No. 16 overall pick in the 2012 NHL draft make his debut with the stakes as high as they could be (h/t SBNation.com).
Wilson had a solid debut, with eight shifts and a shot on goal. With the Rangers trying to be more physical, Wilson, who loves to hit and play the body, is the perfect antidote to that. He might not have scored—but he did not make the big mistake either.
The point is that the Caps are, at the moment, the healthier of the two teams, and that has been the case for much of the series. Would the Rangers be in a better position if they were healthier? Probably.
As it is, the Blueshirts will have to figure out a way to force a Game 7 anyway.
2. Home Ice Advantage
Home ice advantage is often overlooked in the NHL playoffs.
In this series, it has meant everything.
Unlike the series last year, the home team has won every game this time around. Having home-ice advantage was a key reason the Rangers won Game 7 last year.
For the Rangers to repeat the feat this year, they will have to not only hold serve at Madison Square Garden on Sunday, but they will have to figure out how to beat the Caps at Verizon Center in Game 7.
That will be no easy task for New York. Since the Caps and Rangers began battling each other in the playoffs in 2009, the Rangers have gone 3-10 in games played in Washington.
By contrast, the Caps have gone 4-7 in games played at MSG. On paper anyway, and based on recent history, the Caps seem to have a slightly better chance of ending things on Sunday than the Rangers do of winning a Game 7 in Washington.
As mentioned before, home-ice advantage usually does not mean a whole lot in the NHL playoffs. So far, the home teams are 27-15 in the playoffs, meaning that the home club is winning about 64 percent of the time.
Still, the Caps have done what they needed to do. They have won all three games on home ice, and they are now firmly in control of their own destiny in this series.
Sometimes, doing what is expected of you—and doing what has to be done—can make all the difference.
If the Caps end up winning this series in a Game 7, on home ice, then doing what they were expected to do will indeed have made all the difference.
3. They Are Winning Despite the Top Line Being Ice Cold
I am not much of a gambler. However, I would wager some money that if you told New York Rangers' coach John Tortorella when the series started that the Caps' top line of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson would have combined for only three goals and four assists through the first five games, he would have felt really good about his teams' chances.
Instead, despite the Caps' top line falling so short, the Caps can put away the Rangers on Sunday with a road win in Game 6.
On the one hand, the Rangers have to feel good about how they have limited a line that combined for 34 goals, 50 assists and 84 points over the Caps' final 20 games of the season.
Then again, there has to be concern that holding Ovi, MoJo and Backstrom in check for, possibly, two more games might be a lot to ask.
This might be particularly true for Ovechkin, who is tied for second in shots among players competing in the playoffs with 24. Ovi has not found the net since Game 1, and one gets the feeling that he may be on the brink of a big game sometime before this series ends.
Regardless, with the Caps' top line faltering as it has, yet the team still holding a 3-2 series lead, this has to be considered an unexpected advantage for the Caps.
How have they been doing it? By showing that they are more than a one-line team this year. The Caps have scored 12 goals in the series so far. Defensemen have accounted for three of them, making the blue-liners as productive as the Caps' top line.
Beyond that, the second line (Troy Brouwer, Mike Ribeiro and Martin Erat/Eric Fehr) has scored two goals, the third line (Mathieu Perreault, Joel Ward and Jason Chimera) have also scored three goals while the in-flux fourth line (Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks and Tom Wilson) have a goal.
What this means is that the Caps seem to finally have the balance and depth necessary to weather their best players vanishing during the playoffs, something that has haunted this team for the past five years.
Will the Caps' big guns show up in Game 6 and put an end to the series? It is certainly possible.
If not, then the Caps should feel confident that they have the necessary role players who can make up the difference and lead the team to the next round.
4. Braden Holtby Is Matching Henrik Lundqvist
One area where the New York Rangers figured to have an advantage over the Washington Capitals when the series began was in net.
After all, the Rangers had the reigning Vezina trophy winner, Henrik Lundqvist, between the pipes while the Caps had Braden Holtby. Lundqvist, of course, had bested Holtby in last season's Eastern Conference semifinals—but just barely as Holtby matched Lundqvist save for save in a great seven-game series.
This season, shortened though it might have been, was still going to be Holtby's first true regular season in the NHL. As far as the regular season was concerned, Lundqvist was the better of the two in most major categories.
Lundqvist had 24 wins; Holtby had 23.
Lundqvist's goals against average was a 2.05 while Holtby's was a 2.58.
Lundqvist had a .926 save percentage while Holtby had a .920.
Holtby did beat Lundqvist in the shutout department as he collected four against Lundqvist's two.
All those stats aside, though, Lundqvist was probably considered the better goalie when the series began. The fact that Holtby has again matched him save for save then has to be considered a big advantage for the Caps.
Not only has Holtby matched Lundqvist through five games, statistically speaking he has been the better goalie. Holtby has a 1.91 goals-against average while Lundqvist has a 2.28.
Holtby has a .933 save percentage while Lundqvist has a .927.
And, of course, Holtby had that one huge shutout in Game 2.
For Holtby, though, now comes the hard part—winning in New York. In five playoff games at Madison Square Garden, Holtby is just 1-5 with a 3.00 goals-against average and a .887 save percentage.
Compare that to his 5-1 record against the Rangers at Verizon Center, with a correspondingly solid 1.17 goals against average and a .960 save percentage, and the task that awaits Holtby on Sunday looms even larger.
Holtby's play so far has been an advantage for the Caps. But he must now take the necessary next step and prove to everyone he knows how to shut a good team down in their building.
If he can do that, the Caps should be marching on to the next round Sunday afternoon.
5. Special Teams
Once again I give the New York Rangers credit. They have done a pretty good job at keeping the Washington Capitals' power play in check.
Unfortunately for the Rangers, though, pretty good has, thus far, not been good enough.
During the regular season, the Caps' power play was the most lethal in the NHL connecting 26.9 percent of the time. Whether the Rangers could contain that power play was a key factor as to how the series would go.
So far, the Rangers have done a pretty good job. The Caps' power play conversion rate is down to 21.4 percent for the playoffs, which has them ranked seventh among the 16 playoff teams. That's not too bad, but it is not great either.
The problem for the Rangers is the timing of those power-play goals. The Caps have three power-play goals in this series, all of them on home ice and all of them being back-breakers for the Rangers.
In Game 1, Alexander Ovechkin's only goal of the series was of the power-play variety and it tied the game up at a crucial juncture.
In Game 2, Mike Green's overtime power-play goal was, obviously, the game winner.
In Game 5, Joel Ward's power-play tally tied the game and changed the momentum of Game 5 completely around.
Still, the Rangers have yet to yield a power-play goal at Madison Square Garden, and that has to make them feel better about their chances on Sunday.
What is somewhat surprising, though, is how good the Caps' penalty kill has been in this series. During the regular season, the Caps' PK ranked 27th in the NHL with a 77.9-percent kill rate. By comparison, the Rangers were ranked 15th with an 81.1 percent kill rate.
But in this series, the Caps' PK has actually been much better than the Rangers. Shockingly, the Caps have the second best penalty kill among the 16 playoff teams with a 90.5-percent kill rate. The Rangers are ranked 10th with a 78.6-percent kill rate.
When you add all this up, it is not hard to figure out why the Caps have the 3-2 series lead. The power play has been slowed, somewhat, but is still scoring goals when the Caps need them most.
On top of that, the penalty kill is doing surprisingly well and stymieing the Rangers' power play far more often than not.
If the Caps can continue to win the special teams battle, their chances to ultimately win this series increase exponentially.