Caps Appear Ready to Apply Lessons Learned - Series Preview
By Scott Lowe
Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Preview
#1 Washington (48-23-11) vs. #8 New York Rangers (44-33-5)
Everyone is going to point to the Rangers’ two blowout wins against the Caps (by 6-0 and 7-0 scores) this season and talk about this being a bad matchup for Washington. You will hear from more than one source that the Rangers are primed to pull off the upset. But a closer look at the facts does not appear uphold that viewpoint.
The circumstances of those blowouts – the first coming with a Washington team making a transition in playing style and struggling through a season–high eight-game losing streak and the second coming on the heels of a grueling six-game road trip – paired with the Caps’ transformation from an explosive offensive high-wire act to one of the league’s most solid defensive clubs, indicate that those outcomes do not provide even a remotely realistic preview of how this series will unfold. The Rangers did win three of four vs. Washington this year, but one was in a shootout, so the series was pretty evenly contested aside from those surprising games.
“We played them well early in the year,” said Capitals winger Jason Chimera. “The playoffs are a whole new beast, so guys aren’t looking at the (regular season) record at all. We believe in ourselves here. That’s all in the past. But, we have to be wary. They beat us handily a couple of times. They work hard and I think that we were going through a transition at the time that we came out of nicely. Since then we’ve played really good hockey. And you can use that as a motivating factor, too. We don’t want to get embarrassed like that again.”
Certainly the Rangers are going to approach the series the same way Montreal did in its first-round upset of the Caps a year ago, clogging up the center of the ice, sagging back and dropping to block as many shots as possible. That style worked well for the Canadiens, because they were a team built to counterpunch and use their speed to take advantage of Washington in transition. New York is not built that way.
Washington, even in a less-productive offensive year, has three players (Alex Ovechkin, Nick Backstrom and Alexander Semin) with as many or more points than the Rangers’ leading scorer, Brandon Dubinsky (24-30-54). And New York will be playing without one of its offensive and emotional leaders, Ryan Callahan, who was tied with underachiever Marian Gaborik for second on the Blueshirts’ scoring list.
Gaborik has been in and out of the John Tortorella doghouse suite all year, more for his lackluster defensive play than his disappointing offensive numbers. But many hockey coaches will tell you that your defensive play and the energy derived from it often can drive your offensive production. Gaborik just doesn’t seem to understand that.
Tortorella is a good coach who manages to get the most out of his talent this time of year, but the Rangers just don’t pass the sight/smell test in this matchup. Sure he can take Marc Staal and Dan Girardi and try to piece together a “shut-down” line in hopes of neutralizing the Caps’ presumed top trio of Ovechkin, Backstrom and red-hot Mike Knuble (nine goals in the last 14 games), but the reality is that any such “shut-down” line most likely would include Dubinsky.
If that’s the case, then who generates offense for the Rangers? And, even if slackers such as Wojtek Wolski and Gaborik step up and produce offensively, how does New York match up with depth forwards Jason Arnott, Semin, Brooks Laich, Marco Sturm, Marcus Johansson, Winter Classic-hero Eric Fehr, etc.? If the Rangers do have success against Washington’s top line, Caps’ coach Bruce Boudreau can drop Backstrom down to play with Semin and Sturm or Laich and move the speedy Johansson or the experienced Arnott up to play with Ovechkin. The up-and-coming Johansson has played frequently with Ovechkin late in the season with good results. His speed and playmaking ability create space for the oft-shadowed sniper and present matchup problems for most teams.
There also is a psychological side to this matchup that has been overlooked by many. Tortorella in the past has had no problem selling his defense-first, shot-blocking, clog-the-ice system to his teams. This time around, however, he has to sell that style to a team that has outscored Washington 13-0 in two wins. If the Rangers don’t buy in and think they can come out and run-and-gun with the Caps because of those previous results, this series could be over in the blink of an eye.
Washington still possesses the skill and firepower that propelled the team to more than 300 goals and the Presidents’ Trophy a year ago. The difference is that the players have bought into a more playoff-friendly defensive style that has allowed the Caps to emerge as a top-five defensive team. The Caps’ 191 goals and 2.33 goals allowed per contest rank fourth in the league, and they have risen from a bottom-half shorthanded team to the No. 2 penalty-killing group in the NHL this year. Somewhat concerning has been Washington’s descent from the top power-play team to No. 16 in the league, but the Caps are trending upward in that category after ranking in the 20s among all teams for most of the year.
The one facet of the game that favors the Rangers on paper is goaltending. Henrik Lundqvist has been one of the league’s – and the world’s – best for many years and led the NHL with 11 shutouts, including two against Washington, this year. He is a game changer who can steal victories.
As usual, the media is pointing to the Caps’ goaltending situation as a question mark. The youthful duo of Michal Neuvirth and Semyon Varlamov has backstopped the team successfully all year, getting superb help from fellow youngster Braden Holtby. Some would even argue that Neuvirth was the MVP of Washington’s hot start in September and October when filling in for the injured Varlamov.
Neuvirth has been more consistent and remained healthier than the athletic Varlamov and appears to have won the starting job as the postseason begins thanks to his solid numbers (27-12-4, 2.45, .914). Varlamov has not gotten much offensive support this year, posting a mediocre 11-9-5 record despite a strong 2.23 GAA and .924 save percentage.
Although both netminders are young, the Caps’ goaltending situation is unquestionably much stronger than it has been the past three seasons. Neuvirth has backstopped Hershey to two consecutive Calder Cups, so he is battle tested beyond his years, and Varlamov has two seasons of playoff experience in which he has performed well. He came off the bench two years ago to beat Lundqvist and the Rangers in seven games before falling to the eventual Stanley Cup-champion Penguins in a classic seven-game tilt. Last year he faced the rabid Montreal fanbase and went 2-1 on the road in a seven-game series loss.
Varlamov has come off the bench before and played well, so if Neuvirth struggles Boudreau will make the change with ultimate confidence. Varlamov also was named the player of the game in the Caps’ Winter Classic victory against Pittsburgh, a pressure-packed contest played in front of 70,000 fans and a national television audience. It wouldn’t be surprising if Boudreau rotated the goalies no matter what to keep them both in their regular-season routine.
While it is entirely possible for Lundqvist to steal games, it seems unlikely given the talent disparity for him to steal four games and an entire series. The Capitals will not be in awe of him, having beaten him two years ago, and the fact that they rallied from 3-1 down in that series should prevent Washington from going into panic mode if he stands on his head in a couple games.
“We’re ready all the time,” Boudreau said. “Things haven’t worked out the way we might have liked for two of the past three years, but we’re ready. They want to play, and this should be a good series. We’re going to play as hard as we can, and hopefully that equates to a win, but let’s not mistake the fact that the Rangers are going to play as hard as they can. It should be two teams battling like two warriors. That’s what makes the Stanley Cup Playoffs so special. There’s nothing left on the table. Both teams are going to give everything they’ve got and one team is going to win.”
An angry Capitals team, embarrassed by last season’s early playoff exit and two blowout losses to the Rangers this year, will be too much for New York to handle. Lundqvist may steal a game – or even two – but no more. Washington’s new defense-first style combined with its offensive depth will frustrate the Rangers, who probably hope to get under the Caps’ skin and sit back until opportunities present themselves. The Caps will take lessons learned in last year’s loss against a Montreal team that played a similar style to what the Rangers figure to present and use them to roll to victory in five games.
The Washington Post is reporting that the Caps have skated with the same line combinations in practice the past two days. It looks like the forward combinations for Wednesday night will be as follows:
Nine defensemen skated each day for the Caps, including Mike Green and Tom Poti. Green has been pronounced fit and ready to play in Game 1 by Boudreau. Poti seems unlikely to play at this point, which means the defensive pairings could look like this:
Ovechkin has played well since returning from his “rest,” recording eight points in the last six games after opening the month of March with 14 points over a 10-game stretch …
The Rangers should have as many as eight players making their NHL playoff debuts in this series …
New York has struggled to score goals of late, recording 17 goals in its last nine contests …
It will be interesting to see if Sean Avery, who has been in and out of Tortorella’s doghouse of the past two years, will be in the lineup. A recent healthy scratch at times, his disruptive style can be effective in the playoffs, but also has in the past hurt his team by creating unnecessary power play opportunities. Avery was benched during the Rangers-Caps series two seasons ago.