As the Capitals and Rangers prepare to go head to head in their first round playoff series, there will be plenty of storylines to mull over, including the defensive prowess of each team, the situation in net, and of course, those two games that we're still all trying to forget.
After the jump, a quick and dirty guide to some of the head-to-head match-ups we'll be seeing come Wednesday night.
The Net Situation
It's no secret that the backbone of the Rangers has been and continues to be Henrik Lundqvist...to the point that it's easy to forget he's only on his sixth NHL season. They've been six impressive seasons, to be sure, but what's interesting about ol' Hank is that his numbers against the Caps have been less than sparkling. Over the course of his career he's faced the Caps 19 times in the regular season, with a save percentage of .906 and a GAA of 2.75. In fact, the only teams in the East against whom Lundqvist has worse numbers are Philadelphia (31 GP, .905 save %, 2.75 GAA) and Montreal (22 GP, .896 save %, 2.95 GAA).
And let us not forget his four losses, .908 save % and 3.00 GAA against the Caps in the playoffs.
Don't let the numbers fool you, though; Caps fans are well acquainted with his ability to steal a game or three, and without a legitimate NHL backup behind him it will definitely be Henrik from start to finish. So the Caps need to hope that Michal Neuvirth (or Semyon Varlamov) can match him save for save and then some. Neither of the Caps' young netminders has stellar numbers against the Rangers this year; but again, don't let the numbers fool you - two of the team's worst outings this year came against the Rangers (much more on that in a bit) and those shellackings were as much a product of poor team play as they were poor netminding.
Bottom line - the Rangers have the edge in net for sure, but if Lundqvist gets chased...there's no one else.
Defense and Lack of Offense vs. Defense and Lack of Offense
One of the biggest stories in Washington this year has been the evolution of the team from a once-potent offensive dynamo (that often neglected its own end) into a defensively responsible, tight-checking group. The result? A vast improvement in goals-against on the season, going from 16th in the NHL (2.77 GA/G in 2009-10) to the fourth-best defense in the League (2.33 GA/G).
They'll need that defensive trend to continue, because the Rangers are hardly lacking in that area and won't give the Caps a ton of chances to outscore them. New York's improvement over last year has been less jarring but it's still visible, as they allowed just four more goals than the Caps over the course of the season for a goals-against per game of 2.38...in other words, the fifth-best defense in the League.
Of course the reality is that both teams need their defense to be strong and their goaltenders to be steady, because the offensive side of their game isn't exactly setting the world on fire. It's an area in which the Rangers have struggled for awhile, but the Caps are coming off a season in which they led the League in total goals scored and goals per game - and by a wide margin. This year both are middle-of-the-pack, with the Rangers holding the slight edge, 2.73 goals per game to the Caps' 2.67.
Scoring Early vs. Rallying Late
The Rangers finished the season with 44 wins and 38 losses in regulation, overtime or shootout. 29 of their wins were earned when they held a lead after two periods...and none of their losses. Those 29 wins weren't the most in the League when leading after forty minutes, but New York was the only team to finish the season without losing a single game in that situation.
And it's a record that will face a tough task in Washington (and vice versa). While the Capitals were almost as adept at winning games in which they led after the second period (29-0-3), they also had the most wins and the best winning percentage when trailing after one and the second-most wins and second-best winning percentage when trailing after two.
The Cardiac Caps are alive and well...the question is can the Rangers stop them?
Special Teams Battle
On the surface, the Caps and Rangers appear to have similar tendencies in special teams play, with the slight edge going to Washington on both the power play (17.5% vs. New York’s 16.9%) and the penalty kill (85.6% vs. New York’s 83.7%). Both teams have given up just five shorthanded goals, fourth-lowest in the NHL, and both have cashed in shorthanded – although the Rangers have done so 11 times to the Caps’ 7.
Where things start to diverge is in the amount of opportunities each team has had with the extra man and shorthanded, and when those opportunities have come.
For the Caps, the season-long struggle to cash in on the power play has been made even more difficult by their struggle to even draw power play opportunities. Their 268 power play chances rank 28th in the League, compared with the 290 drawn by the Rangers (15th). And while the Rangers have had difficulty drawing penalties early, with the 90 calls they’ve gotten in the first period ranking 6th lowest, it’s the final forty minutes – two-thirds of the game – where the Caps have seen their power play chances drop.
Washington has gone up a man 91 times in the second period, third lowest in the League, and just 70 times in the third period, second lowest in the League. Their combined totals for the final forty minutes? 161, which leads only Ottawa’s 160 opportunities. And it’s something to keep an eye on in this series, because as difficult as it is for the Caps to draw penalties late, it’ll be even more difficult against a Ranger team that has been shorthanded the fewest times in the final forty minutes of a game.
No mention of an impending duel between the Caps and Rangers would be complete without mentioning the two games that were so pivotal in the season - and so painful to experience. If you can bear it...a look back:
Dec. 12, 2010 - In the midst of one of the worst losing streaks in franchise history, the Caps rolled into Manhattan hoping to right the ship against a Ranger team that had lost two of their last three. The result was anything but, as the Caps stumbled to a 7-0 loss despite outshooting the Rangers 31-20 and even failed to gain any momentum from the rare sight of their captain dropping the gloves.
Feb. 25, 2011 - The score may have been a little closer but the outcome was the same, as the new-look Caps returned home after a lengthy road trip to seek revenge on the Rangers...and ended up having their rear ends handed to them via a 6-0 loss. The silver lining, if you want to find it, is that the Caps followed up that performance with a record of 16-3-1 in their final twenty games of the season. A turning point? We'll see...
New York's Best Defensemen vs. Washington's Best Forwards
In the past, the tough task of taking on Washington's top line has mostly fallen to the defensive duo of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi - and this year, at least, they've done their job. The trio of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble has combined for just one goal (Knuble's) and two assists (Ovechkin's) in the four games between these two teams. The question for New York, however, will be whether they've got enough defensively to handle the Caps if the secondary (and tertiary and quaternary) scoring should show up.
We're looking at you, Alexander Semin.
New York's Best Forward vs Washington's Best Defenseman
They may have had trouble scoring this year, but the Rangers still finished the season with five 20+ goal scorers; that hasn't happened in New York since the 2006-07 season, in the heady days of Jaromir Jagr, Michael Nylander and Brendan Shanahan.
And when he's healthy, the biggest threat of those five goal-scorers (four if you take the injured Ryan Callahan out of the equation) is definitely Marian Gaborik, whose twenty-two goals were third-highest on the team despite the fact that he missed twenty games and whose raw talent can sometimes rival that of Ovechkin and Semin. Mike Green may be back in action tomorrow night but it'll likely be John Carlson and Karl Alzner who draw the unenviable task of shutting Gaborik and friends down.
Boudreau vs. Tortorella
We saw it two years ago and we'll see it again this year: the battle between two of the more vocal, entertaining coaches in the NHL. On one side you've got Bruce Boudreau hurling F-bombs, on the other you've got John Tortorella hurling water bottles. And when it comes to post-game press conferences...well, make sure you've got the popcorn ready.
Ranger-Killer vs Caps-Killer
The Caps have their share of Ranger-killers in the lineup, from the usual suspects to the more...unusual (hi there, Matt Bradley). But if there was one individual whose past performance needs to foreshadow his present one it's Alexander Semin. His five goals and three assists (along with 27 shots on goal) paced the Caps to a series win over the Blueshirts two years ago, and while he's been quiet of late it always feels like he's right on the verge of breaking out...seeing the Ranger blue in a playoff setting might be just the medicine he needs.
On the flip side, it's another unusual name popping up as a Cap-killer: Brian Boyle, who has tortured the Caps this year, with three goals and four assists in the four regular season meetings. He's another one who has cooled (although for him it might be a bit more regression to the mean), but he does like playing the Caps - might be good if the team follows some wise words on how to shut him down.
It seems as though this year has seen the performances of each team almost overshadowed by some key injuries at less-than-opportune times. The Rangers have gone long stretches without their captain, Chris Drury, as well as the offensive stylings of Marian Gaborik and the defensive presence of Marc Staal; the latest in their long line of bumps and bruises, however, could be the most costly as Ryan Callahan will miss the rest of the year with a fractured ankle. A byproduct of the gritty, shot-blocking style they enlist for sure but Callahan is a huge loss in terms of offensive production, penalty-killing ability and basic leadership.
For the Caps, it's been a decimated blue line that has dominated headlines over the past month or two. Most notable was the absence of Mike Green, who will (hopefully) make his return tomorrow night after sitting out six weeks with a concussion (which he suffered the last time these two teams tangled). Just in time, too, because newly acquired Dennis Wideman is out for at least the first round after suffering a hematoma that resulted in compartment syndrome, and they're still missing - yes, missing - Tom Poti. was a huge part of the Caps' playoff win over the Rangers two years ago - something about playing his old team lit a fire under #3, and he'll be missed if he doesn't return for this series.
Well...maybe not by Ranger fans.
You can't talk about a series like this without mentioning the history - and there's plenty to go around, whether it's memories of Patrick Division battles from twenty years ago or more recent showdowns; whether it's old wounds from the regular season or wounds that took longer to heal from playoffs past. This will be the sixth time these two teams have met in the postseason, just two years removed from a series that added to the animosity between the franchises and that is surely still fresh in the minds of all who took part in it.
It's certainly still fresh in the minds of the fans.
But the past is the past. A new battle begins tomorrow.