Part one of our series preview roundtable as we draw closer to yet another thrilling playoff match-up with the New York Rangers, with a look ahead at how these two teams match up this year compared to previous years and what obstacles may lie ahead for the Caps...
1. This will be the fourth meeting in five years between these two teams, but a very different Caps team (and in some ways a different Rangers team) from last season - what do you think will be the same/different this time from the previous playoff meetings?
Becca: I have to think that it’s going to be a much more wide-open - and hopefully entertaining - series than last year. A year ago it seemed as though both teams were sitting back a bit, waiting for the opportunities and mistakes presented by the other team. The Caps in particular are playing a much more aggressive style than they have in the past, and that has to change the dynamic of a series. Henrik Lundqvist put it best when he talked about how the Caps used to be all offense, then all defense, but this year’s team is more of a blend - and they’ll have some rejuvenated players to help continue that hybrid style). As a result I don’t think we’ll see the Rangers just falling down in front of pucks quite as much... although they’ll still do it, as will the Caps, because that’s what these teams do.
JP: The obvious big difference is Adam Oates. Where this team is now compared to where they were under Dale Hunter last May is night-and-day, and not only in terms of the things you can measure and/or try to measure. That difference flows down to the captain’s play, the extra-man unit and other aspects of the game (not all necessarily positive, of course). Another big difference is that the Caps have plugged the hole at second-line center that has existed since the guy who scored that Game 7 winner against the Rangers a few years back left town, and it’s obviously worth noting that Rick Nash is new to the post-season rivalry. Be afraid. Be very afraid.
What’s the same? Handsome, talented Henrik Lundqvist ; smarmy, smug John Tortorella; solid American boys named Ryan and so on. The more things change...
Rob: I think both teams are better than the versions that played last year, but I don’t think it’ll necessarily change a lot about the game. I expect a very tight series, with close games. Obviously, the guys that JP mentioned are going to be big (or have to be, for their respective team to win), but at a higher level the big difference I see from last year is that both teams have more potent offenses. It was an extremely defensive battle last year (and, from the Rangers’ perspective, every time these teams have met). This year defense will obviously be important, but both teams are better suited to take advantage of opposition mistakes. The goaltending may still keep the scores low, but I think we’ll see more quality offensive chances this year.
Geoff: As comfortable as Washington fans have gotten with seeing the Rangers in the early stages of the Stanley Cup Playoffs this year’s crop comes with a different offensive option, big-rig sniper Rick Nash skating alongside Brad Richards. While the late season trade of uber-talented forward Marian Gaborik will ease the Capitals’ defensive responsibilities the fact remains that Nash is largely an unknown in postseason play. Having only skated in four playoff contests for the Blue Jackets (then held together by duct-tape and an overachieving Steve Mason) Nash put three points on the board in Columbus’ first round sweep; the elite winger hasn’t played past April in four years. It is safe to say ‘expect the unexpected’ with the gifted goal scorer, because no one has a firm gauge on Rick’s second season expectations. Heed J.P.’s advice.
Kevin: In my opinion, you don’t have to look past the top 6 forwards on either team to identify the most significant differences from last year. In Washington, Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom stroll into the playoffs two of the hottest players in the National Hockey League, whereas last year Alex Ovechkin was still caught up in his relative struggles and Backstrom was returning from the Bourquian elbow. Alex Semin is now gone from the line below them, but replaced by two of the Caps most prolific producers during the regular season in Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro, who have been joined by newcomer Martin Erat.
In New York, Marian Gaborik is gone, but Rick Nash is now filling his shoes. The same Rick Nash who has just tortured the Caps over his career. Mats Zuccarello, a highly touted prospect, is now back with the squad after spending the majority of the season playing in the KHL, and is playing the best North American hockey of his young career.
What’s stayed the same? Probably the nefarious foul that is Madison Square Garden springtime ice.
2. What is your biggest concern about the Caps’ game going into this series?
Rob: The Caps haven’t been a very strong possession team all season, and the Rangers have. With the sample size we are dealing with (4-7 games) there may not be a huge difference in total shots, but if the Caps can’t maintain possession, they’ll have a more difficult time drawing penalties, which they will need to do to get their potent power play on the ice. The Rangers have a lot of depth up front (if they can get healthy) and I think that poses the potential of something Caps fans saw against the Penguins all those years ago, when the puck was in the Caps’ defensive zone nearly all game and the Caps defenders were beaten to a pulp below the goal line. It’s tough to win a playoff series under those circumstances.
JP: For me it’s defensive depth (which, coincidentally, should be the Rangers’ biggest concern as well). All due respect to John Erskine, Steven Oleksy and Jack Hillen, but they’ve been extraordinarily puck-lucky at even-strength this year, and at some point you’ve gotta figure that luck runs out. And heaven help us if one of the Caps’ top-three blueliners gets hurt (always a concern with one of them, less so with the other two). So yeah, defensive depth - Nash is frightening enough against elite NHL defenders... hopefully we don’t see him out too often against the backend of the Caps’ blueline.
Kareem: I like our forwards, I like our goaltending. But JP hit the nail on the head. I lose sleep thinking about how exposed the bottom three defensemen are, primarily on the road where the Rangers get the last change. If the Caps pull this out, it’s going to be because Erskine-Hillen-Olesky each had a mighty fine series.
Kevin: Last year the Capitals played fourteen playoff games, and every single one of them was decided by one goal. This year, the Rangers are the 5th best possession team in close games, (close being defined as a one goal or tied game, or a two goal game during the first two periods), while the Capitals are 9th-worst. I routinely preach that the heightened stakes, tightened ice, and unpredictable flair of the playoffs outweighs the significance of such things, and looking at those numbers, boy do I hope it’s true.
Geoff: The power play (and Mike Green’s own success) drove Washington to the Eastern Conference’s third seed. Without continued scoring on the man advantage the Capitals will struggle to keep enough pucks out of their net and into New York’s own to take the seven game series. Any Caps fan along for the ride over the past four years know of John Tortorella’s thirst for shot-blocking from all eighteen of his skaters, a tactic that has muted power play units before. First and foremost, the shots that are taken must get through to Lundqvist. From there responsibility lies on the forwards to corral and deposit. The man advantage must favor Washington over the series’ duration.
Becca: I’ll agree with the potential issues with possession, the defense, and the power play (...I really am optimistic about their chances, I swear) - but I’ll build on that last one and say that while the Caps do need to take advantage when they have the extra man, their reliance on the power play at times this season is a concern and they need to focus on five-on-five play.
For one thing, everyone talks about how the playoffs have a lower rate of penalties (for better or for worse... and tell that to last spring's high-sticking Joel Ward), so the Caps can’t depend on having five, six power plays a night. For another, their first-round opponent happened to be tied as the least-penalized team in the League this season, so the likelihood of getting a number of power plays goes down even further. The Caps have succeeded at times this year by being opportunistic; they need to continue this, cashing in when given the chance but also making the Rangers work at even strength.