With Caps/Rangers tied at two games apiece and an absolutely critical Game 5 just hours away, let's see how everyone's feeling. Our answers are here - leave yours in the comments.
1. Through four games, what's working for the Caps? What do you feel good about?
Rob: It's tough to lump this series together and characterize it as four games because I thought the Caps looked so different at home compared to Madison Square Garden, but I'd have to say that the ability of the Caps to maintain puck possession has been the pleasant surprise. Obviously, that advantage was much greater over the first three games, but given the performance of these teams in the regular season it looked like the Rangers would have a substantial advantage in the puck possession stats. If the Caps can continue that, they should be in good position for the next three games.
JP: Agreed on possession, though it's hard to feel great about it after Game 4. Hopefully getting back on home ice will flip the script back to the way it was in Games 1 and 2. For me, the big positive here is that the Caps have been able to score on Henrik Lundqvist, so they should have the confidence to know they can do so going forward. And it hasn't been the power play or the big guns either (more on that later), it's been a lot of Mathieu Perreault (G, 3A), Jason Chimera (G, 2A), Joel Ward (3A) and nine points from the blueline. If the third line and defense can keep contributing and the top-six get on-track, the Caps will be fine (then again, if those wells dry up and the scorers can't get right, they could be golfing Monday morning). Regardless, there's not the stick-squeezing you might have if Lundqvist was flat-out stoning them on a nightly basis.
Geoff: I have enjoyed watching Joel Ward's return to Capitals' bench. After returning from a knee injury in game one the forward's ice time reached a series high of 13:28 in game four. In those limited minutes Ward put four shots on goal, one of which found its way to Mathieu Perreault and resulting in the Capitals' first goal. With Martin Erat's injury keeping the winger out of game five, expect Ward's ice time to jump with whatever new assignments come from Adam Oates.
Whenever heads are hung low or the team is otherwise overthinking the smallest of tasks it is Ward I see setting the example. He was flying across MSG ice and I'll be keeping an eye on his certain additional minutes tonight.
Kevin: On a team level, even-strength play, evinced by the possession numbers, as alluded to by Rob and JP above. There was some sentiment this season that the Capitals power play was keeping them afloat in spite of their lackluster performance at five aside. In their past two games, the Caps have put six goals past Henrik Lundqvist at even strength. A nice balance, considering special teams have defied expectations in the other direction. I think you also have to single out the third line of Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, and Jason Chimera. Those guys have had their hand in the even-strength cookie jar. The only problem is they're not sharing the wealth. If the third line (assuming the injury to Martin Erat doesn't shake them up) sustains the possession and production they've established through four games, even a glimmer of life from the top line at even-strength should be enough to propel this team to the next round.
2. What's not working? What worries you?
JP: Besides the suddenly ineffective power play that Rob will touch on, what isn't working is the flip side of my "what is working" coin - the top-six forwards. Through four games, those half-dozen forwards have combined for four goals and don't have a single even-strength assist. That's mind-boggling. Matt Hendricks has as many even-strength points as Alex Ovechkin and Mike Ribeiro combined (i.e. zero). Perreault has as many points (4) as Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson and Troy Brouwer combined. And Martin Erat has as many points as... Filip Forsberg. (Cheap shot, I know.) It's hard not to look at seven points in four games from the top-six and a goalie with a GAA above 2.00 and wonder how on earth the Caps are level in this series.
Rob: I've always been wary of a team that relies on the power play, and the Caps have reinforced that concern. I don't think the power play has been good enough, especially on the road. The Rangers have moved to a more passive penalty kill, giving the Caps more time on the outside but not opening up the shot from the slot or the cross-ice passes that they've killed other teams with. It's not just a matter of conversion percentage, either. I don't think the Caps PP has looked particularly dangerous. Adam Oates is going to have to make some adjustments to get the power play back on track.
Geoff: As Rob mentions, only a fool relies solely on the referee's whistle for a favor, and along that line I believe the Rangers' penalty kill (fine-tuned through four games) is too strong for Washington to think any advantage they have is meaningful. The power play shots that are attempted are usually shrugged by the penalty killing forwards manning the box's top and if they aren't absorbed by New York's defenseman or a friendly jersey in front, Henrik Lundqvist remains confidently capable. Since their first visit to MSG the calls haven't been going Washington's way and the team seems to mirror the ebb and flow of man advantage situations. Much like goals, confidence is picked up in exponential increments when the power play is chugging along.
John Tortorella has his four man units forcing looks from the Capitals that opposing bodies already (largely) occupy in New York's favor. I do not envy the first power play unit to skate onto Verizon Center ice later tonight.
Kevin: I'll join the special teams fray here, and say the whistles are worrying me. The power play isn't producing like we've come to expect, while the Ranger's power play has done enough to steal the last two games from Washington, albeit with a considerable opportunity advantage (the series total in power play opportunities is 21 to 14 in favor of the Rangers, and 10 to 5 during the two games played in New York). We said before the series began that the special teams side of the playoff die would be a heavyweight player in this series. Whether it's been a lack of discipline, or a draw of the short straw when it comes to zebra-vision, the Capitals are losing the special teams game, and that's why this series is tied.
3. Here's your chance to revise your pre-series predictions. Any takers?
Rob: As horrible as the Caps played for most of game 4, they still have home ice advantage and have looked much better in the Verizon Center than the Rangers. It may be tough for the Caps to pull out a win at MSG, but the Rangers have been lucky to be close in the two games in DC. I'm sticking with Caps in 7, despite every part of my inner fan telling me that I'm stupid for having faith in a Capitals team. It's going to be a close three games, but I think the Caps will find a way to pull out the wins at home.
Geoff: My prediction remains a possibility, Capitals in 6, and I expect to see it through. I believe the home team (again) takes game five, and can imagine Holtby serving an ace in his return to MSG to close out the Rangers. Expect two strong games from this Washington squad. New York's newfound momentum scares me before faceoff but I believe in Oates' bunch enough to stick to my guns.
JP: Hmmm... I had Rangers in six and while it's not terribly surprising to see New York trend upward and the Caps down coming off two games in Manhattan, I'll
try to flex my reverse-jinxing muscles and stand pat.
Kevin: Being the slovenly ratfink that I am, I didn't get my predictions up during the last roundtable, though I am on record saying Caps in 6. I'm going to stand pat on that, with the assumption that the two paths to the penalty boxes shall be more evenly trod.