As the Caps roll right along, so do we...
Question 1: What did we learn about the Caps last series? What lessons are they going to need to take forward if they want to keep this season going, and do what they never could do under Bruce Boudreau?
Becca H: I think we learned that the Caps are more resilient than they seemed so often during the regular season (and in regular seasons/postseasons gone by). Falling behind didn’t seem to faze them; neither did losing a one- or two-goal lead. They played a very patient, opportunistic game right up until the end and never really seemed to panic. That’s going to be really important against a Ranger team that plays much the same way.
Pepper: Hunter also seems to have been able now, finally in the second season, to get everyone to buy into that tight checking, "patient opportunism," and was absolutely not afraid to bench anyone, Captain included, in response that player’s lack of focus and effort at both ends of the rink and the game situation. These two things, in particular the second, Boudreau was never able (or willing) to consistently implement through a long series.
Rob Parker: Agreed that the resiliency was a big thing in the first round. I’d say they showed more mental toughness than we’d been accustomed to seeing as well. A familiar lament has been that one goal, one tough bounce, has often seemed to get them crestfallen and lead to a snowball effect. Against the Bruins the Caps never let that happen. They faced tough goals, bad bounces, bad calls, but they never folded. The Bruins never had a two goal lead in the 7 games, which means that every time the Bruins took a lead the Caps found a way to dig deep and come back. The Caps also had to play a game without Nicklas Backstrom, and they managed to hang in there and steal a win that prevented a 3-1 deficit. Every time the Bruins scored, the Caps found a way to answer. The three Bruins wins came on two overtime goals, and a goal in the final 2 minutes. When there was time on the clock, the Caps came back against a very strong defense and reigning Vezina/Conn Smythe goalie. Then to top it off we saw a game 7 road win in overtime.. That’s what sticks out most to me.
JP: I agree with you guys and would add that they bought into the team concept in a way we hadn't really seen before. There was balance in the scoring and well-defined roles that were played well, all-in-all. And they were tough without being overly aggressive and taking bad retaliatory penalties (with one obvious exception). All of that (with a pinch of stand-on-your-head goaltending) is a pretty good recipe for post-season success, and it certainly was in Round 1. Play another round like that, and there's every reason to believe the results will be similar.
Kareem: I agree with everything stated above. Additionally, my two big takeaways are: 1) GMGM was right; a healthy Caps squad can beat anyone (and the Bruins are no pushovers); 2) the affirmation that teams need to be lucky as much as good. We could easily be lamenting "what if" situations today and talking about next season right now. Instead we’re moving on to play the Rangers in Round 2. "Luck" is something that doesn’t usually grace the Caps in spring, so it was nice to have it, and it would be nice for it to continue.
Question 2: So, once again, it’s the Washington Capitals versus the New York Rangers - only this time it’s a spot in the Eastern Conference Finals that is up for grabs. On paper, it’s a 1 seed facing a 7 seed. On the ice, the 7 seed just defeated the 2 seed in a 7 game series and the 1 seed just barely out-lasted the 8 seed in 7 games. So let’s get right to it, what do you like about this match-up? What reasons do Caps fans have to be optimistic?
BH: This match-up doesn’t feel all that different from the one they just finished, to be honest. The Rangers are another team that relies on depth more than star talent (although they do have a bit more star power and a bit less depth than the B’s), and they play good team defense. The good thing about that for the Caps is they know how to play that kind of game and have just won a series doing it, so they’ve got the confidence that it works - if they weren’t buying in to the system before (and they pretty much were), they are now.
What’s more, while the Rangers have some defensive studs on their team they’re likely not quite as stifling as Chara and Seidenberg were against Alex Ovechkin... and we know how much Ovi loves playing at Madison Square Garden.
RP: I agree that the Rangers pose a similar match-up as the Bruins. I’m not sure the Rangers really have more top end talent, they just have different top-end talent. None of the Rangers’ D are as good as Chara, their top pair isn’t as good as Chara/Seidenberg, but the Rangers have a little more high end scoring. Richards and Gaborik have more finish than the Bruins forwards. Bergeron is an amazing player, but his finishing ability is not the same caliber as those guys. Ovechkin should have more space than he got against the Bruins, and he’ll need to do something with it.
The Caps, and their fans, should feel confident because they’ve seen a pretty similar Rangers squad twice in recent playoff seasons. They’ve won both times. The Caps didn’t have the same regular season success this season, but we already saw how much that matters. They’ll play better defense and they still have enough talent up front to put some pucks in the net. The Rangers didn’t look like world-beaters against the Senators (though that was a particularly tough match-up for them), so the Caps really should have their chances in this series. Henrik Lundqvist is obviously a great goalie, but the Caps won’t be intimidated considering they’ve ended his season two of the last three seasons and they just defeated Tim Thomas’ Bruins.
JP: Buoyed by the first round win, there's plenty of reason for confidence. Are the Rangers, on paper, better than Boston? And where they are, as Rob points out, the Caps can draw on their been-there-done-that experience against 'em. One thing people need to realize - Alex Ovechkin had "only" five points in the first round while facing a Norris winner and a Selke finalist on most of his even-strength shifts. The Rangers may have more depth on the blueline, but they don't have that top-pair or Patrice Bergeron... and they don't have anywhere near the physicality of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg. The Caps' captain made it through the toughest match-up (for him) in the League and lived to tell about it. It'll be interesting to see what he's got in store for Round Two.
KE: The Caps aren’t intimidated by the Rangers or MSG in any way. Like JP inferred, I think you’ll see Ovi relish the opportunity to play in the limelight of Broadway - he always seems to be a gamer when playing in the big hockey towns (NYC, Montreal, Toronto).I expect to see a strong series from him, even if he continues to play without Backstrom.
Question 3: Now that we’ve gotten in touch with our optimistic side, what worries you about the match-up? Where do you think the Caps are vulnerable, where do you think the Rangers might be too much for the Caps to handle?
BH: Henrik Lundqvist. Yes, the Caps have beaten him in the playoffs - twice - and no, he hasn’t seemed unbeatable so far in the postseason (yet). But he’s also a Vezina nominee for good reason, he's the kind of goalie who can steal a game or four, and he scares me more than Tim Thomas did.
Beyond just the goaltending, I can see the Caps having trouble with a team that blocks even more shots than they do. Ovechkin and Alexander Semin have never been all that great at getting around shot-blockers, and will need to focus more on scoring in transition - something the Rangers are good at preventing.
RP: Obviously Lundqvist has the ability to steal any given game, and he did just that at least once against the Senators. But my main concern is that this Rangers team is just a bit better, a bit deeper, than the NYR teams the Caps have eliminated in the past. Obviously Brad Richards is a huge addition for them, and he changes the look of their top 6 forwards. Their young D is a year older, and McDonagh isn’t just a rookie who is impressing, he’s a legit shutdown guy now. Del Zotto still earns the Del Zaster nickname (courtesy of Scotty Hockey) on occasion, but he’s not a complete liability and he can create offense. Ryan Callahan is healthy this year, his absence from last season’s series cannot be overstated. Carl Hagelin has been a very good player for the Rangers this season. Chris Kreider just joined the Rangers, but he has a fantastic skill-set and he seemed to get better every game he played in the first year. Up and down the lineup, the Rangers are better and/or more experienced than they were last year or in 2009.
JP: In the wake of the Round 1 win, nothing stands out. The Caps showed they could play coin-flip games with a deep team that plays a relatively tight, conservative style and gets great goaltending. The Caps' biggest vulnerability right now might be fate. Oh, and Dennis Wideman.
KE: Yep, it’s that bottom defensemen pairing that scares me. Torts is going to exploit the hell out of the Wideman & Schultz/Erskine combo, and I can see him salivating over the thought of getting the Gaborik line out against them.
Question 4: So, if you had to pick one key to the series, what would you pick?
BH: Stay the course and stay hungry. The Caps had to gut out a seven-game series as an underdog, and they did so in a very impressive manner; they need to remember what it feels like to be an underdog and channel that into every game, they can’t let up and think it’ll be easier just because a) they unseated the reigning champs and b) they’re facing a team they’ve beaten twice in the last few years. The second they start thinking they’re better than their place in the standings is the second the Rangers have won the series.
RP: I think they need to come with the same focus they had against the Bruins. They didn’t have the extended mental lapses that we saw so many times in the regular season, and for the most part they paid attention to detail and did all the little things. When they did make mistakes, they frequently ended up with pucks in the net, or men in the penalty box (or press box). Keeping up that focus, and channeling the discipline they showed after game 3 against the Bruins will be crucial if they want to return to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since ‘98.
JP: I agree with Rob - focus. The Caps entered the Bruins series with no one giving them a chance, which suited them well. That won't be the case in the second round, and if they start to believe their clippings, they could stumble.
Question 5: Who is the key Caps player this series?
BH: Ovechkin. Holtby was amazing in the first round and they’ll need him to do that again, but the Rangers’ offense could be more potent than Boston and the Caps have got to have a counter-punch. What better weapon to unleash than a guy who always seems to have big games against New York? He’ll see a healthy dose of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, but chances are he’ll get his chances. He has to take advantage.
RP: I absolutely cannot argue with Ovechkin, and Holtby is another obvious answer. But I’m going to go with Nick Backstrom for a couple reasons. First, it sounds like Neuvirth is ready (or close to ready) to play. That means there’s a legitimate NHL back-up, should Holtby’s play fall off (or, if you prefer, regress to the mean). Neuvirth is capable of giving the Caps NHL caliber goaltending and winning a playoff series so the situation isn’t quite as dire. Second, wherever Nick plays he’s going to have to be the engine of the line. If he plays with Ovechkin, he’ll be crucial in getting AO chances. Nick was the only positive-Corsi top-6 player in the first round for the Caps (Knuble and Ward were the only other positive-Corsi players overall), so he’s going to be the guy that creates the most puck possession. If Nick is on the second line again, as seems likely, the Caps will need him to create a secondary scoring threat, and hopefully give Torts something to think about as he tries to line-match.
JP: Ovechkin, Backstrom, Holtby... all great choices. Last series I went with John Carlson, this time I'll go Mike Green. The power play needs to be better and he can help that, and his play at even-strength - both on offense and defense - could be the difference in the series.
KE: Dennis Wideman. He needs to hold down the fort for 15 minutes/games and not get exploited. That’s not going to be easy, considering who he will likely be partnered with. However, if he turns out to continue his run of poor play and become a liability this series, then our top 4 d-men are going to get worn out logging 25+ minutes/game to cover the difference, and that’s a recipe for disaster.
Pepper: Marcus Johansson. While not being deployed as a 2C anymore, he still pulled down the second-most minutes amongst Caps forwards at fives in Round 1. Another monster game from him like we saw from him at MSG last year around this time (you remember, the 3-0 double OT comeback) would really frustrate attempts by the Rangers to match lines and stretch their top D.
Question 6: Any bold predictions for the series?
JP: I predict that Michal Neuvirth will get a win.
RP: I predict that Alex Ovechkin will have more third period time on ice than Jay Beagle in a game that the Caps win.
KE: We will see Jeff Halpern suit up for at least one game.
BH: Mike Green will have two power play goals.
Pepper: Holtby will score an empty-netter.
Question 7: So what’s the prediction for the outcome of the series?
BH: Caps in six.
JP: Caps in six.
Pepper: What they said.
RP: Well, as J.P. said, this team can’t start reading their clippings, they need to play that humble game. Plus, Boston in 7 worked out pretty well last series. I like the Caps’ chances better this round, but I’m not going to jinx anything. So... "Rangers in 7."
KE: It’s still a coin flip series and it’s going seven games. Like my first round prediction, my heart is overruling my brain again. Caps in seven.