Fri 27 Apr 2012
It is fitting that the New York Rangers and the Washington Capitals are meeting in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. Both teams each survived a tight checking opening series that went seven games. In terms of style of play, one could say that the Rangers and Caps are mirror images of each other.
Katie Carrera of the Washington Post described the series as “… a team-defense, shot-blocking palooza. Washington demonstrated its ability to sacrifice the body and absorb shots from the Bruins, finishing with 139 blocks through seven games.”
The Rangers, the NHL playoff leaders, were credited with 155 shots blocked against the Senators.
“By being an ex-player I know what it takes, what the players are going through over there, they get to blocking shots and taking big hits, they’re sacrificing,” Coach Dale Hunter explained to Stephen Whyno of the Washington Times. “So for players, I think it’s one of those things when you win big games like this it’s because they sacrificed and they did [Wednesday night] and through the whole series.”
Whyno offered up his take on how Hunter’s system differs from former coach Bruce Boudreau’s defensive system.
“It’s a departure from years past, even last season, when former coach Bruce Boudreau tried to tighten things up and play a more trapping game. This is a real 1-3-1 neutral zone trap that forces opponents to think more about where they’re putting the puck and takes advantage of mistakes,” Whyno wrote.
There are two main differences between the teams. First off, the Capitals have more potential offensive weapons with the Big Four of Alexander Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green.
The second difference would normally be a major deciding factor in who will win the series. The Rangers are led by veteran goaltender Henrik Lundqvist while Washington is relying on rookie Braden Holtby. Normally, that would a big edge to the Rangers, but recent history says that is not the case.
The Capitals have eliminated the Rangers the last two times the teams met in the playoffs with rookie goalies leading the way. In 2009, it was Semyon Varlamov relieving an ineffective Jose Theodore in Washington’s seven game series win. Last year, it was rookie Michal Neuvirth instead of Varlamov pacing the Caps to a five game series win. Will the third time be the charm for the Rangers?
As one might expect, John Tortorella puts no credence in the 2009 and 2011 playoff matchups.
“It doesn’t even come into the equation as far as what we have done before. This is another series,” the coach said.
Holtby’s stats during the Bruins series (2.00 goals against average and .940 save percentage) are nearly identical to those of The King (1.70 goals against average and a .945 save percentage).
Holtby defeated the Rangers on the final day of the regular season stopping 26 of the 27 Blueshirt shots in a game that saw the Rangers spot the Caps a 4-0 lead. It was also one of the few games that the Rangers did not seem to have the whole heart in as the reverted to cruise control rather than chase after the President’s Trophy.
The team split their four regular season games with each team winning once at home and once on the road. The Rangers limited the Capitals to just 89 shots in the four games while firing 109 shots of their own. The Rangers defeated Neuvirth twice while losing to Holtby and Tomas Vokoun, who is out indefinitely with a strained groin.
For the Rangers, Lundqvist won two of three games he played with Martin Biron getting tagged with a 4-1 loss at Washington on December 28.
The one disconcerting fact to consider is that the Rangers only faced the Caps Big Four once during the regular season, the 4-1 loss on April 7. Mike Green missed each of the first three games due to injury. As a result, the Caps Big Four became the Big Five with the emergence of John Carlson in the series. In the four games, Carlson scored three goals and three assists – tying him with Backstrom for the team lead (2-4-6).
Rounding out the Big Four, Ovechkin tallied a goal and two assists while Semin had three goals.
For the Rangers, Ryan Callahan was the Rangers leading scorer in the series (1-4-5). Brandon Dubinsky was second with four points (1-3-4) and Brian Boyle (2-1-3) and Brad Richards (1-2-3) followed with three points each.
The Rangers received good news at Friday’s practice as Boyle returned to the ice; however, his status is still uncertain depending on how he bounces back from practice.
Dubinsky did not practice today and is listed as day-to-day as a resul.t of a lower body injury (thought to be an ankle or knee injury). Dubi missed nearly the final 12 minutes of Game 7.
If Boyle and Dubinsky can’t go, one would expect the Rangers to recall a forward from Connecticut – possibly Kris Newbury who would fill in on the fourth line with Artem Anisimov stepping up to the third line – as he did Thursday night.
Following practice, Tortorella offered matching “no comment” responses when asked for updates on Boyle and Dubinsky.
While most fans are questioning the NHL’s decision to make the Rangers play just 41 hours after finishing off the Ottawa Senators, Tortorella not only refused to join the chorus but he takes the opposite view.
“No, in fact I would rather have it this way,” Tortorella responded to a question about the quick turnaround. “I think when you play a Game 7, and you start another series, if you wait a couple of more days, I think there even could be a letdown.”
“I like the quick turnaround in this type of situation.”
While the coach might not see any problems, I believe the Rangers need to get off to a quick start in Game 1 in order to give themselves some breathing room after the initial shot of adrenaline wears off.
In addition, a quick start takes some of the pressure off of facing the red-hot Holtby and it might help make the rookie goaltender realize that he is just a mere mortal.
So how do the Rangers accomplish this goal? I hate to go back to my Game 6 article, but they must play “their game”. They need to carry over the positives from the Ottawa series.
That means they need to forecheck hard and puts pressure, and bodies, on Carlson and Green early and often.
It means the Rangers’ forwards need to use their speed, especially Marian Gaborik, Carl Hagelin and Chris Kreider, to force the Capitals defense to back up. That will enable the Rangers to activate their defense to get more involved in the offense – as they did in Game 7 – a strategy that Jamie McLennan of the NHL Network praised the Rangers for doing against the Senators.
Conversely, the Rangers must pay more attention to Washington’s point men in this series. The Rangers might have to sacrifice some of their shot-blocking in order to better control their defensive blue line. Also, they have to be better at clearing the puck during battles near the blue line because the Capitals have the offensive talent that can make a team pay for such a mistake.
While the Capitals have playoff history on their side by winning three of the five playoff series the teams have played, they are facing a mighty tall task for a seventh seed.
According to an article by Neil Greenberg of the Washington Post, 15 seven seeds pulled off first round upsets. Of those 15 teams, 11 of them lost in the next round and the remaining four lost in the Stanley Cup Finals.
I see the Rangers-Capitals series being as tight as the team’s first round matchups were. As with the Rangers-senators series, I see the Blueshirts prevailing in a seven-game war as home ice advantage will payoff in another Game 7 victory.
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