If it is Spring time and the hockey playoffs are blooming, then it must be time for the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals annual playoff series. While that might not be the whole truth, it is pretty darn close as the Battle of Broadway versus the Beltway lines up for the fifth time in the last seven years – and three in the last four playoffs.

The way these two teams are going this playoff matchup is going to have more sequels than the “Rocky” saga.

David Satriano and Dan Rosen of nhl.com pointed out that Dan Girardi, Henrik Lundqvist and Marc Staal are the only Rangers to have played in the previous four playoff matchups. The Capitals have five players: Nicklas Backstrom, Eric Fehr, Mike Green, Brooks Laich and Alexander Ovechkin. Jay Beagle appeared in four playoff games in 2009, but did not play in the Rangers-Capitals series.

The Capitals Game 7 elimination of the New York Islanders robbed New York hockey fans of the first Rangers-Islanders playoff matchup in 21 years – and I say good riddance.

It would be bad enough if the Rangers are eliminated by the Capitals, but could imagine the scene if the Islanders were the team eliminating the Blueshirts? There would be a conga line a mile long stretching from Madison Square Garden to the East River as Rangers fans lined up for a long walk off a very short pier.

In terms of substance, whether they were playing the Capitals of the Islanders, the Rangers would be facing a team that is more physical than Pittsburgh. While the Penguins tried be punishing hitters, they are no match for the Capitals (or even the Islanders for that matter).

You can expect Washington to come out hitting from the opening faceoff of the opening game. While Tom Wilson has drawn the most ink because of his hot on Lubomir Visnovksy, the most physical player they need to worry about is the Capitals best player – Alexander Ovechkin.

Ovie has no problems leading the seek-and-destroy missions that has become the Capitals calling card. In addition to his size, Ovechkin enjoys the superstar designation that allows him to play over the line without the fear of reprisal from the National Hockey League.

The Rangers cannot afford to get caught up trying to answer every hit the Capitals dish out. While they do need to maintain a physical presence, the Rangers are going to win the series by doing what they do best. As physical as the Caps might be, you can’t hit what you can’t catch.

The first obstacle is going to be shaking off the rust as the Rangers get back into playoff mode after being off a week – something the team needed in the long run.

“We played 13 games in 22 days, and a lot of it was against teams that were … trying to get into the playoffs,” Coach Alain Vigneault explained to Avery Stone of USA Today. “I think this (break) is going to be very beneficial for us. We’ve got a couple little bumps and bruises that we’re in the process of healing.”

While the time off won’t be enough to allow Mars Zuccarello to return to the lineup, it did allow Kevin Klein to get in the necessary practice to return to the lineup.
In looking at the Rangers-Capitals series, I see five keys to a Rangers victory.

DISCIPLINE

This key is a multi-layered one. First and foremost, the Rangers have to stay out of the penalty box. While Washington’s power play has been nothing to write home about during the playoffs, the Capitals did own the regular season’s best power play. There is no need to poke the bear with a stick at this point in the season.

Secondly, the Rangers need to remember that skating, speed and solid two-way play is what led them, to the Presidents Trophy during the regular season. They must not be drawn into matching the Capitals hit-for-hit. Take the body when you can and don’t be drawn into any retaliation penalties.

MOVEMENT

The easiest way to avoid hits is to keep moving – both in terms on constantly being in motion (i.e. skating) and keeping the puck moving. This movement is crucial to the Rangers power play. The Rangers power play is at its best when both pucks and players are moving.

The Blueshirts get themselves into trouble when they start playing a passive (and stationary) box and appear content to move the puck around the perimeter. A team that does not move on its power play makes itself very easy to defend.

TRANSITION

The Rangers will make things easier on themselves if they are able to alleviate the pressure (and physical play) the Capitals are dishing out if they are able to get the puck out of the zone.

The ability to break Washington’s forecheck will not only lessen the Caps ability to punish the Rangers defense corps, it will allow the Blueshirts to use their speed advantage in the overall transition game – which is the key to the Rangers offense.

As part of this emphasis on transition, it means the Rangers are going to win the “battle of the blue lines” – both in their zone and at the Capitals blue line.

In their defensive zone, the Rangers are going to have to work extra hard at winning the battle along the boards – especially within five feet of the blue line. If Washington is able to win those battles and keep the 50-50 pucks within the Rangers end, the Capitals are going to be able to use their size to eventually wear down five tired skaters.

At the Capitals blue line, the Rangers can’t afford to turn the puck over at the blue line. If they have no advantage on the attack they need to get the puck deep and work on the Capitals defense corps. The hope is that the Rangers speed lets them win the puck battles or at least force the Caps into taking penalties.

SPECIAL TEAMS

A big key rests on how the referees are going to call this series. If the Rangers speed game is working, they are going to draw a fair share of penalties against the Capitals. If they referees are going to let obstruction go, then it will be a long series.

A long series can get even longer if they Rangers power play is not producing any consistent offense. The Rangers don’t need to score on every man advantage (one out of four would be good), but they do need to able to maintain sustained pressure on a large number of power plays.

The more success the Rangers have on the power play, the less inclined Washington will be too “take liberties” with their physical play. Between having to face an active Rangers power play and watching Ovechkin sit for long periods of time (think Sidney Crosby, Game 1 Period 1), the Capitals will have to curtail their physical play a bit.

In terms of penalty killing, stop Ovechkin! The entire NHL knows that Ovie likes to set up on his off-wing at the top of the left circle and wait to line up one of howitzer-like one-timers.

During the last two regular season games the teams played, the Rangers left the Capitals captain WIDE open for those shots as he netted two PPGs.

While the Rangers don’t want to be caught focusing all of their attention on Ovechkin, it might behoove them to consider a triangle-and-one at times (keep someone on Ovechkin at all times and play a triangle formation) to try and confuse the Capitals.

Better yet, just stay out of the penalty box altogether.

BRADEN HOLTBY

MSG analyst Steve Valiquette pointed out that he thinks Braden Holtby might be wearing down because of the workload he handled this year. Valiquette thought Holtby was staying down on his knees and not regaining proper positioning following his first save – something he did criticize Marc-Andre Fleury for on Carl Hagelin series-winning goal in Game 5.

The numbers do bear Valiquette out. Holtby led the NHL is games played, minutes and saves this year. Including his six playoff games (he missed Game 2 against the Islanders because he was sick), Holtby has played in 79 games so far – surpassing his career high of 55 (last season). He has played nearly 6,000 minutes – nearly doubling the 3,100 minutes he played last season.

That is quite a heavy workload for a goaltender who is not used to it. The Rangers to keep pressure on Holtby as much as possible to see if they can wear him down by sheer quantity, never mind quality. They can up the ante on the quantity by getting bodies to the net and creating a lot of traffic in front of him.

THE PREDICTION

I would feel a lot more confident in picking the Rangers to win if Mats Zuccarello would be in the lineup. While James Sheppard’s size will be a welcomed addition to the lineup, the Blueshirts will miss the Little Italian Norwegian Kid’s ability to open up a game with his vision and determination.

With that said, the Rangers have shown an ability to overcome whatever speed bumps the 2014-2015 season have thrown at them. Whether it was injuries to Henrik Lundqvist, Derek Stepan and Kevin Klein, there was always a Cam Talbot, Kevin Hayes or Matt Hunwick ready to step in and fill the void – the “Next Man Up” theme that WFAN’s Boomer Esiason has always espoused about this season’s New York Rangers.

While the Capitals have the best player on the ice in Alexander Ovechkin, and maybe even the second best player in Nicklas Backstrom, the Rangers have the better team from one to 20.

It is not going to be an easy series. Nothing is ever easy when it comes to the New York Rangers. Who else but the Rangers would make winning a five-game series seem like winning a seven-game series where every game went into overtime?

Let’s face it; the Rangers almost always have to do things the hard way. Their last seven playoff games have been decided by one goal. Nine of their last 10 playoff games have been one-goal games. 12 of their last 14 games are, you guessed it, one-goal games. Of those 14 games, three went to double overtime and three were settled in “regular” overtime.

As they have done in the past, the Rangers will find a way to soldier on and advance to the Eastern Conference Final in, what else, a seven game series victory on home ice – in overtime.

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