With a hard-fought Round 1 victory under their belts, how are you feeling about Barry Trotz's Caps in the playoffs? What gives you confidence and what are your concerns going forward?
The Peerless: I feel no different at this point than I did at the start of the first round. I expected the Capitals to advance, and they did so (in one more game than I thought it would take). What gives me confidence about this team, their first series under their belts, is that for the first time in what seems like forever, they have no memory. A win is forgotten; a loss is forgotten. They do not get too high with the good and do not fall too far with the bad. That has been a hallmark of their play this season, perhaps a sign of maturity, perhaps something Trotz has instilled in them. Nevertheless, it makes me think this team can withstand the quirky nature of fortune that occurs from game to game, or even within a game, both good and bad.
As for what concerns me, I think the Caps are going to need more from Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom than they got in the first round, production-wise. Backstrom was held off the score sheet in the last three games against the Islanders; Ovechkin was without a goal over the last three games. As much as the first round was something of a coming out party for Evgeny Kuznetsov, I don't think he will drive success on a sustained basis.
Rob: I'll build on what Peerless said regarding the memory. Not only did the Caps bounce back from bad games, they bounced back from bad goals/misses/calls/moments within games. Game 2, needing a win, finally carrying the play... tough goal on transition by Okposo. No problem, Caps finish the comeback. Game 4 they finally get a 1-0 lead and blow it with a late first period goal by the fourth line. No problem, not even with the ridiculous penalty spree in the second period. Game 7, horrific tying goal. No problem. The team responded to adversity in this series in a way they haven't since at least the 2009 series against the Rangers. That's big.
I'm still concerned they don't have enough skill up front to create the necessary secondary scoring. Nick and Ovi have had some good games, but they aren't going to score every game, especially not against Lundqvist, so the Caps need more from the rest of the forwards. The Game 5 outburst was nice (even nicer was Kuz saving one more goal for the series and not getting a Tarasenko Hat Trick), but it's not going to be like that on a nightly basis. Someone is going to have to step up and force the Rangers to respect them. Right now that looks like it has to be Kuznetsov and Johansson, but it doesn't give me the warm and fuzzies.
Chris: I'll echo Peerless and Rob; this team showed a resiliency - both from game to game as well as from moment to moment within games - that I haven't seen from them in years, if ever. Game 7 was probably the most dominant I've seen the Caps play in the playoffs when you consider the opponent and the situation. The team clearly wants to play "heavy," but they have enough skill to make plays. Finally, I was really impressed by the ability of the coaching staff and players to adjust to what the Isles were doing. The breakout and transition game were struggling for a couple games, but by games 5-7, they had it clicking.
Despite all this rosiness, I have a bunch of concerns.
First, the Rags have a deeper defense than the Isles, particularly with Kevin Klein on the mend. Part of the reason the Caps looked better in games 5-7 against the Isles was because of attrition to the the Islanders' defense. Second, I worry about secondary players like Kreider, JT Miller, and Kevin Hayes doing damage much like Josh Bailey and Ryan Strome did for the Islanders.
Why do the secondary players worry me? Well, that brings me to my third concern: Tim Gleason. To put it mildly, Gleason was awful against the Islanders. He looked slow and out of sync, and his "outlet passes" were often just giveaways. The stats back up my eyeballs - he was DFL among defensemen in Corsi % despite favorable zone starts. Vigneault will use the last change to abuse Gleason. Finally, Holtby looked like he was fighting the puck most of this series. His stats looked good, but he didn't appear to be on top of his game. That will need to change against the Rangers.
Adam: I'm not really sure how I feel about this team right now. I'm confident that this team won't allow a traumatic game/play to ruin their chances for the entire series. Trotz has the Caps playing great at home when he can utilize the last change (with game 1 being the exception) but the Caps were outplayed pretty handily on the road.
I'm concerned that the Capitals will focus too much on making big hits and not enough on playing true "heavy hockey" (i.e game 6).
J.P.: I'm more confident than I was entering the playoffs in the ability of the second line to generate offense. Obviously Kuznetsov had a coming out party in the second half of Round One, but Johansson was good (and physical?!) as well. The team still could stand to get more production from the bottom-nine forwards, but at least the second line has it going a bit and Burakovsky looks to be a regular now.
I'll echo Chris on being a little concerned about Holtby. He posted terrific numbers in the first round, but didn't look quite as sharp as those numbers would lead you to believe. He doesn't necessarily have to outduel Lundqvist for the Caps to win this series, but he can't be far behind.
How well do you think the Caps match up with the Rangers?
The Peerless: Not as well as they did against the Islanders. Not on the basis of style, since both the Islanders and Rangers are fast and deep among their skaters. The Islanders were still serving something of an apprenticeship in the playoffs; they did not have a lot of experience. That cannot be said of the Rangers. As Kuznetsov might put it, "this is not their first rodeo." And, Jaroslav Halak's bizarre record against the Caps aside, Henrik Lundqvist is just a better, more dependable goalie over longer stretches. If there is something to balance that, it is that the Rangers present no surprises for the Capitals. They know the Rangers well enough not to be intimidated by their record.
Rob: Not great. The Islanders are the better possession team than the Rangers, and I think the Islanders have more speed across the lineup than the Rangers; that speed did cause the Caps some problems and the Caps did struggle with puck possession several times in the series.
However, what the Rangers lose in speed and puck possession, they make up for in being more battle tested and much deeper on defense. There will be no Hickey to pick on. Certainly no Donovan and Mayfield. The Rangers, as of now, aren't down their number 1 defenseman. The Rangers are better equipped to handle the Caps' heavy game and I don't think the Caps have the skill to exploit whatever weaknesses the Rangers do have. The Rangers are also not going to be overwhelmed by any moment like the Isles appeared to be at times so I think the Caps are in for a much tougher battle. And, of course, as good as Halak was, Lundqvist will be better.
Chris: Again, I find myself echoing Peerless and Rob - this matchup isn't as good for the Caps. The Rangers aren't as good in puck-possession metrics, but they have tons of experience, a deep defense, an all-world goaltender, and a savvy coach. There will be fewer holes to exploit, and the Rags will have more ability to exploit the Caps' holes. For example, Ovechkin struggled to produce against Johnny Boychuk, how is he going to fare against Ryan McDonagh?
Adam: I'm in the minority here, I think the Caps match up against the Rangers better than they did against the Islanders (at least when the Islanders' D was relatively healthy). Just in terms of the Caps and Rangers: I don't consider Lundqvist to be that much better than Holtby, I'd argue the Caps have a better defense than the Rags, and the Caps certainly have more top tier talent. The Rangers biggest asset is their forward depth so the Caps will lean heavily on their middle six.
J.P.: I don't hate the match-up. The Caps have shown a good ability to play with whomever they're up against and I don't think this series will be any different. There may be some feeling out and adjustment period, but the Caps were rarely badly overmatched during the regular season and I don't see it happening here either.
Give me two or three players who have to be better in Round 2 in order for the Caps to win this series.
The Peerless: Outside of Ovechkin and Backstrom, as noted above, I think Mike Green is going to have to be heard from in this series. He did not have a point over his last four games and recorded declining shots on goal in the process (three, two, then a single shot in each of the last two games). Even though he "played" well in stretches in the Islander series, he has gone 11 straight post season games without a goal. Another player from whom more might be needed is Troy Brouwer. By Game 7 of the Islander series he was skating on a line with Jay Beagle and Andre Burakovsky, which had a bit of a look of "The Island of Misfit Toys" about it. I don't know if that combination works.
Rob: I'll take Kuznetsov. The way he finished the series, at least the home games, was great. He doesn't necessarily need to improve on them, but he needs to improve the consistency and bring that kind of offensive danger throughout the series, including at MSG. The Caps, as we expected, struggled with secondary scoring. That challenge is going to get tougher against the Rangers D corps and Lundqvist. If Kuznetsov can't find a way to bring that game-breaking attack, the Caps will have major problems.
Chris: Ovechkin, Green, Gleason, and Glencross, in that order. Ovechkin needs to score, period. His hits were awe-inspiring and his line was generally dominant, but he needs to put the puck in the net more often if the Caps are going to advance. Green is pretty much in the same boat, except he has far fewer opportunities now because of how Trotz is using him. Given the struggles on the power play, I wouldn't mind seeing Green back on PP1. Gleason just needs to suck less. Glencross needs to find his confidence and scoring touch. I don't think the Caps need him to carry any kind of offensive load, but if he could chip in a couple timely goals, it could push the Caps over the edge.
Adam: Gleason, Ovechkin, and Burakovsky. Gleason's play in the first round reminded me a lot of the criticism which Trotz directed towards Tom Wilson earlier in the season (granted Wilson is a forward), but when the puck found it's way onto Gleason's stick while the Capitals were in the offensive zone the play almost always seemed to end shortly thereafter. Gleason is playing with the Capitals most offensively gifted defensemen; if Gleason can be at least be competent in the offensive zone I think it will lead to Mike Green having a big series.
Ovechkin didn't have a bad first round series but I didn't really feel like he had a good one. His possession numbers were strong but he wasn't generating opportunities as often as we're used to (at least that's what my eyes are telling me). Burakovsky looked dangerous in the first round but at some point you have to start converting your chances.
J.P.: Brouwer, dudes. Brouwer. Especially on the power play, he's going to get chances and needs to convert some. (I'd note that he was terrific on the penalty kill in Round One). Beyond him, I'll go with Gleason (as detailed above) and Holtby, who put up great numbers against the Isles (especially after his bout with sickness in Game 1), but let in a couple of regrettable goals that could've been back-breakers and looked shaky at other times. I want that Holtby swagger back.
Who will be the most important player for the Caps in this series and why?
Chris: Ovechkin. He's the best player on either team. If he plays the way he's capable of and Holtby and the defense can hold the fort, the Caps can win this series. If he struggles the odds get much worse.
Adam: I'm going to cheat and pick a subcategory of players (because picking a goalie is boring), the Capitals are going to win or lose this series based on the play of their forwards under the age of 25. The Caps have five guys that fall into that grouping but the ones that will likely factor into the lineup are Marcus Johansson (24), Evgeny Kuznetsov (22), Andre Burakovsky (20), and Tom Wilson (21). The deciding factor in this series is going to be the middle six match up.
The Peerless: Braden Holtby. Picking a goalie is sort of the default position at this time of year, but Holtby presents a special case. The obvious consideration is getting the bad taste of that 5-0 pasting he endured at the hands of the Rangers in Game 7 two years ago out of the way. There is also the fact that he has not been exactly a brick wall against the Rangers this season (1-3-0, 3.06, .897). But he does have it in him. His 6-8 record in two seven-game playoff series against the Rangers is not a product of his numbers (2.05, .925, one shutout), but lack of offensive support (seven times in those 14 games the Caps scored one or fewer goals in regulation). He is likely to have to be at least that good for the Caps to advance.
Rob: I'd have also said Braden Holtby, but then we just saw the Caps beat a superior possession team when Braden Holtby wasn't on top of his game. His aggregate numbers look great, but he let in a bunch of uncharacteristic goals. So the key is Nicklas Backstrom. He was the key to the Caps' offense against the Islanders and possibly the only forward that was able to routinely challenge the Islanders' defense and get a cycle going. He's going to need to be great to get some offense against Ryan McDonagh and keep the Caps' top line from spending shift after shift in their own end. Given the lack of secondary scoring and Henrik Lundqvist, the Caps' stars are going to need to produce, and that starts with Backstrom.
J.P.: Obviously I agree on Ovechkin and Holtby, but I'll go with the Caps' "third MVP", Nicklas Backstrom, as I did in Round One. He's the straw that stirs the drink, and I'm thirsty.
Prediction time: who wins this series, Caps or Rangers? How many games?
The Peerless: This will be the fifth time in seven post seasons that these teams will have met. Three of the previous four went to seven games. I'm not seeing any reason it will not be four in five. In 2013, the Caps took the Rangers to a seventh game despite some deficiencies (to be charitable) behind the bench. With another year of painful experience behind them and better coaching, the Caps even the score at two seven-game series apiece by returning the favor of winning Game 7 on their opponent's ice.
Rob: The Rangers aren't as good of a puck possession team as the Islanders are, and may not be quite as fast, but they are deeper, healthier, and better in net. Rangers in 6.
Chris: I think this series goes to seven games. If the Caps play the way they did in games 5-7 versus the Isles, I think they take it. If they come out they way they did in games 1, 3, and 4, I think they lose.
Adam: The Capitals will advance to the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time since 1998 when they beat the Rangers in six games. Holtby will outplay Lundqvist and the Caps will actually have power-play opportunities.
J.P.: Caps in seven.