Yogi Berra would be very proud of the New York Rangers-Washington Capitals playoff matchup because he would be able to say that it is a case of “déjà vu all over again” as the two teams meet for the fourth time in five years. Unlike last year’s seven game battle, the seventh and deciding game will be at the Verizon Center, not Madison Square Garden.

In the case of the Rangers and Capitals, familiarity does indeed breed contempt. Why else would Nicklas Backstrom feel the need to stoke the fire on the series while speaking to Katie Carrera of the Washington Post?

“Obviously we felt we were better for seven games last year,” Backstrom opined. “We know they’re a good team and we played them before. It’s going to be a tough battle. I think we’re ready and they’re probably ready as well. It’s going to be, I think, a long series.”

If he doesn’t back up that opinion, it is going to be an even longer off-season.

Honestly, I am not that big of a “bulletin board material” kind of guy. If you need something like that to motivate you to win at this time of the season, then you have already lost the battle.

With that said, I like the response that Dan Girardi gave when he was asked for his take.

“We’re not getting into a war of words,” Girardi responded to the AP. “They’re playing really well. Like us, they had a really solid April. We expect the series to be hard-fought, with a lot of hitting.”
Smart man that Girardi, he is going to let his actions speak louder than words.

Both teams enter the playoffs from similar standpoints – they each relied on red-hot finishes to secure their playoff berths. The Capitals overcame a 2-8-1 start under rookie coach Adam Oates as they thundered home at a 15-2-2 pace to win the Southeast Division.

While the Rangers were not as hot as the Caps down the stretch, the Blueshirts still finished up the regular season on a 10-3-1 run as they earned the sixth spot in the Eastern Conference – and given the teams in the first two spots, that is a good thing. As a measure, the Capitals went 11-1-1 during that same time period.

While the Pittsburgh Penguins and Montreal Canadiens each have their own woes, both teams feasted on the Blueshirts with the Rangers only garnering a 6-1 win over the Penguins late in the season and tallying only one goal in three losses to the Habs.

As a result, the Capitals might have been the best matchup for the Blueshirts given the other two alternatives. The Rangers went 2-0-1 with Washington winning the final game of their series in a shootout on March 24.

Obviously the Rangers must find a way to neutralize Alex Ovechkin in the series. He was held without a point in both Rangers wins and scored a goal and an assist in the Caps victory. Keeping Ovechkin at bay is easier said than done because it has been his resurgence that keyed the Capitals drive to the Southeast Division title. The Caps captain scored 22 goals in his final 21 games as he grew more comfortable with his shirt to right wing.

Rangers Coach John Tortorella will have to work extra hard, especially when the Blueshirts on the road, to get his preferred matchup against Ovechkin. Ideally, he would use the tandem on Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. However, with Oates controlling the matchups with the last change at home, Torts might have to split his top two defensemen to cover all his bases.

Even if the Rangers manage to limit Ovechkin, they have another task that is equally as important – stay out of the penalty box. The Capitals led the NHL with a power play that connected at a 26.7% clip – which is was too close to doubling the Rangers man advantage numbers (15.7%). Simply put, the Rangers need to make this series about five-one-five play despite what happened in the season series.

Believe it or not, but the Blueshirts had the better of the power play battles during the regular season as they scored a power play goal in each game (3-9) while the Capitals scored just once in 10 attempts. Of course, that one power play goal came in Washington’s lone victory.

If I asked you who led the Caps in scoring in their three games against the Rangers, Nicklas Backstrom’s name would probably come up after Ovechkin. With his goal and assist, Backstrom was tied for the team lead against the Blueshirts. The other name would not be among your first 15-20 guesses as defenseman Steve Oleksy also scored a goal and an assist.

For the Rangers, Derek Stephan proved to be the go-to guy as he scored a goal in each of the games – including PPGs in the first and third games. Four other Rangers also posted three points against the Caps: Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin each had a goal and two assists while Ryan McDonagh and Rick Nash each had three assists.

You can take all of those stats with a grain of salt and pretty much wipe the slate clean. Each team has pretty much been transformed from what they were at the start of the season. Heck, the Rangers have reshaped their team twice during the 48-game season without so much as a benefit of a pre-season – with much of it coming after the trade deadline.

Prior to the deadline, the Blueshirts were averaging 2.26 goals per game and were stumbling with a power play hovering around 14%. After the deadline, the Rangers offense jumped to 3.61 goals per game and a power play around 20%.

It was no coincidence that Washington turned their season around after their horrid first 11 games. During that 2-8-1 stretch, they were averaging just 2.27 goals per game. During their final 37 games, the Capitals offense jumped up to 3.21 goals per game.

The biggest key to the Rangers success against the Capitals, and really any team, is to keep the puck out of their own end. Far too many times the Rangers get pinned in their own end to the point of being caught out of position – which leads to goals against.

The reason is simple, the solution not so much. The Rangers forwards spend a lot of their time in the defensive zone collapsing down below the circles as they look to block shots and clog the shooting lanes. The problem with style is that it leaves your opponent’s defensemen open at the points.

As a result, the opponent can ease the Rangers checking (and backchecking) by rotating the puck to the point. That forces the Rangers forwards to have to scramble to get back into position to cover the defensemen. If the opposition is moving the puck quickly enough, the Rangers find themselves scrambling because the puck can always move faster than a player.

The Rangers are not going to completely change their defensive system so they have to be extra mindful of the back passes to the point. The forwards are going to have to be more active in two areas: deflecting back passes with their sticks and getting out to the defensemen quicker to put more pressure on them – thus interrupting or slowing the puck movement.

In the offensive end of the ice, The Rangers need to get bodies in front of Braden Holtby and make his life difficult when it comes to seeing shots from the point. Of course that strategy does require the Rangers to shoot more and to be more accurate with their shots. They also need to be more selfish with the puck and not look to set up the perfect play when a shot on goal is just as good. Sometimes your best passes are shots on goal.

As you might imagine, both teams are difficult to beat when they get the first goal. Washington was 17-8-1 when scoring first while the Rangers were 18-2-1.

The same can be said with in terms of the two teams being difficult to beat when they lead after two periods: Washington is 19-3-0 and the Rangers are 16-0-0.

The Rangers task would be much easier if they were healthier. Then again, that could and should be said about all teams in the playoffs. While the NHL’s regular season was only 48 games long, teams are still recovering from injuries and assorted bumps and bruises.

The Capitals will be missing C Brooks Laich who is expected to miss at least the first round of the playoffs following a sports hernia surgery in early April and RW Joel Ward should be ready to play after recovering from a knee injury.

The status of Brian Boyle, Ryane Clowe, Derek Dorsett and Marc Staal are all still up in the air. Of the foursome, Staal’s absence is the one that hurts the Rangers the most. A healthy Staal would give Tortorella another weapon to defend Ovechkin and would limit Oates’ ability to get Ovechkin on the ice against a non-lockdown defender.

With Ovechkin playing right wing, the heavy duty of defending him falls more on the left defenseman. While McDonagh is more than capable to the task, it would be much easier in terms of matchup if Staal could play. Staal has been quoted as saying that he is “probably” not going to play one. If I were a gambling man, it would not surprise me to see Staal in the starting lineup for Game 3 at the Garden – if not sooner. Remember, Staal’s return to the lineup last year for the Winter Classic seemed to come out of leftfield.

The loss of Clowe and Dorsett should not be overlooked either. Both players would provide much needed size, grit and, as Torts is fond of saying, jam in a series that shapes up to be another war. Clowe would also provide the Rangers with someone who thrives on winning board battles and battles in front of the net. It also robs them of someone who has 65 games of playoff experience.

From all indications, Dorsett would bring the same style of play and intangibles that Brandon Prust brought to the table.

While fans like to bemoan all of the things that Brian Boyle doesn’t do, the Rangers miss the one thing that he is the best at among the Rangers – winning faceoffs. Boyle’s 56.4% faceoff percentage is the best in the series and he is one of the forwards who receives heavy rotation killing penalties.

The possible return of these three forwards would go a long way in supporting the top two lines. With the return of these skating wounded would deepen the Rangers to the point of having four solid lines – even if Tortorella’s penchant is for rolling three lines.

One knock I have seen people level against the Rangers is the playoff inexperience of their best offensive threat. Yes, Rick Nash is 0-4 when it comes to playoff games. However, those same people fail to take into account all of his International experience.

Nash won Silver Medals in the world Juniors 92002) and World Championships (2005 & 2008) and Gold Medals in the World Championships (2007) and the Olympics (2010 – also played in 2006). In 54 International games as a pro, Nash has 53 points.

I have come to the point where it is time for me to put or shut up and make my series prediction. I thought long and hard about taking the “safe” way out and predict the Rangers in six or the Capitals in seven, but that is a gutless to go.

As a result, my prediction is the Rangers win the series in six games. The four days off were just the elixir the Blueshirts needed to get bumps and bruises healed while giving some extra time for the walking wounded to return. It would not surprise me to see all of the injured players back in the lineup by the end of the series.

I also base my prediction on the one trump card the Rangers can play in each and every playoff matchup they are in. They enter any series with the best goaltender on the ice. Henrik Lundqvist got close to the Holy Grail last year and has to be even more determined to take the final steps to the Stanley Cup.

I also base my prediction on the resurgence Brad Richards had at the end of the season. B-Rich can go a long way to make Ranger fans forget his dreadful regular season –sans the last few games. He can also go a long way in ending the calls for the Rangers to use their final buyout on him this summer.

Lastly, I base this prediction on the 2013 playoffs being Rick Nash’s Breakout Party. During the regular season Nash’s third period play offered a glimpse into what Rangers fans can expect as he takes the next step onto the NHL’s brightest stage, the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

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