For the third time in four years, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers will tangle in the Stanley Cup playoffs. There are some differences. The Rangers will have home ice advantage, the Rangers will be the favourites, and it is a second round series instead of a first round series.
The Capitals upset the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in the first round, winning game seven in overtime, thanks to a Joel Ward goal. The Rangers finished first in the Eastern Conference, but needed seven games to oust the plucky Ottawa Senators in the first round.
The Capitals have been searching for many years, for a goalie to replace Olaf Kolzig. It looks like they found him in the person of Braden Holtby. The Lloydminster native was simply sensational in the series against Boston, stoning the Bruins snipers while outplaying Conn Smythe trophy winner Tim Thomas at the other end.
In front of Holtby, the Caps are no longer the run and gun Caps of old. This is a defensive minded, gritty, hard-working bunch, which is how coach Dale Hunter wants his team to play. Even if it means benching superstar Alexander Ovechkin in the process. The great eight managed 2 goals in the Boston series, but spent some quality time on the bench throughout the series. Hunter has said it was because of line matching but most people are convinced that Hunter wasn’t happy with Ovechkin’s effort from time to time. Alexander Semin did lead the Caps with 3 goals in the series, but was sat down at crucial times of the series. Semin has been known to disappear in the playoffs, but made a good accounting for himself against Boston, which made his benching somewhat surprising.
The Caps did get some inspired play from blue-collar players, such as Troy Brouwer, Brooks Laich, Jay Beagle and Matt Hendricks. These players did whatever it took for the Caps to advance. Whether it was blocking shots, playing a physical game, shutting down the Bruins top line, or even chipping in with timely goals, the Caps unknown players made a name for themselves in this series.
The blueline was solid for Washington in the first round. John Carlson, Karl Alzner and John Erskine all grew up in the first round, while veterans Roman Hamrlik and Mike Green provided stability in the Caps end.
The Rangers strength lies between the pipes. Henrik Lundqvist has had an MVP type season and was terrific against Ottawa in the first round. Lundqvist posted a shutout in Game 3, and was the first star in Games 6 and 7, in which he was superb in. There is no doubt the Rangers will go as far as Lundqvist can carry them in these playoffs.
The Rangers also are the masters of blocking shots. New York leads the NHL with 81 blocked shots in the postseason. Coach John Tortorella has his players believing the message of doing whatever it takes to win. The blueline is a deep, sturdy group, with no true superstars, but are reliable professionals. Mark Staal, Dan Girardi, Michael Del Zotto, Anton Stralman, Ryan McDonagh, and Stu Bickel are names that most fans should know.
Up front the Rangers aren’t a high-powered offensive machine, but they do possess the ability to provide goals at key moments. Brad Richards led the team with 5 points against Ottawa, but was criticized for not shooting the puck enough. Captain Ryan Callahan is the heart and soul of the Rangers, and is one of the most underrated players in the NHL. However Marian Gaborik has to step up his game. The Slovakian superstar led the Rangers with 41 goals in the regular season, but only scored once against Ottawa, while pulling a disappearing act during key moments of the series. If the Rangers are to be successful, Gaborik has to find his game. The Rangers are concerned about the health of Brian Boyle. The big centre scored 3 times against Ottawa, but suffered a concussion in Game 5 against Ottawa, and missed the last 2 games. If Boyle can’t return, it would be a significant loss for the Rangers as Boyle provides size up the middle, to go with his soft hands.
This should be a low scoring defensive battle. Even though Washington does have players that can open up the game, Dale Hunter has the players buying in to the defensive, grinding style. The series will come down to goaltending, and I like the veteran Lundqvist over the youngster Holtby. Close series but I’m picking the Rangers in 7.