Empire State of Mind. (NBCW)
With the regular season now closed, we know that the Washington Capitals will face the New York Rangers in the playoffs for the fourth time in the last five postseasons. The Capitals took a crazy route to get here, getting off to a terrible start before closing out the year on an impressive hot streak to lock up the Southeast Division and the number three seed. The Rangers, meanwhile, after a summer that saw them add star forward Rick Nash, struggled to put wins together on a regular basis for much of the year but were energized at the trade deadline by the departure of Marian Gaborik and the addition of Derick Brassard, Ryan Clowe, and other depth-level forwards. And so they meet again, starting early this week at Verizon Center. Let’s take a look at each aspect of each team, shall we?
FORWARDS: Both teams feature several name-brand stars at the top of their rosters among forwards. The Capitals’ attack is spearheaded by 2013 Rocket Richard Trophy winner Alex Ovechkin, with Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro, Marcus Johansson, Troy Brouwer, and Martin Erat filling out the top six. New York is led by Rick Nash, who scored 21 goals this season, with Brad Richards, Ryan Callahan, Carl Hagelin, Derek Stepan, and Mats Zuccarello rounding out the scoring forwards. Below that, the Capitals have more depth with the way Eric Fehr, Mathieu Perreault, and Jason Chimera have been playing of late and are likely to be aided by the return of Joel Ward and perhaps later Brooks Laich. The Rangers have Brassard below their top scorers, and he has played well since arriving, and also have a potential X-factor in last year’s playoff darling, Chris Kreider. However, they also have several injuries with undefined return dates, like Derek Dorsett, Brian Boyle and Ryan Clowe, that really hurts their depth. Overall, the Caps have the best goal scorer in the NHL as part of a unit that has played well despite missing two of their best forwards and, at least right now, have the better and hotter difference makers lower down in the lineup. EDGE: Capitals.
DEFENSE: One of the biggest keys to the Caps’ charge this season has been defenseman Mike Green, who led the NHL in goal scoring among defensemen with 12 despite missing 13 games. Behind him on the blue line are John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Steven Oleksy, John Erskine, and Jack Hillen. The Rangers’ defense is led by their super pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, and filled out by Michael Del Zotto, Anton Stralman, John Moore, Steve Eminger, and occasionally Matt Gilroy. Both teams have a solid “top three,” but afterwards the Rangers’ depth on the blue line really starts to thin while Washington’s, while not great, is still slightly better. Washington can certainly expect more offense from its blue line, as well, with Carlson and Green leading the way. EDGE: Capitals.
GOALTENDING: In one crease is Henrik Lundqvist, the backbone of the Rangers and the reigning Vezina Trophy winner. Hank got off to a very poor start this season but finished the year with a 2.05 GAA and a .926 save percentage, both near the top of the league. Braden Holtby also got off to a very poor start for the Capitals, yielding a significant portion of playing time to Michal Neuvirth, but finished with excellent numbers as well: a 2.58 GAA and .920 save percentage. Though Holtby has made a compelling case to be considered one of the best goalies in the league this year, Lundqvist is quite simply the best there is; he has proven to be the class of the NHL repeatedly and Holtby is just not quite at that level yet, as good as he is. EDGE: Rangers.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The most impressive statistic involving these two clubs and their special teams is the fact that the Washington power play hummed along at 26.8%, the highest percentage by an NHL club in more than 20 years. That power play is way better than the Rangers’ 23rd-ranked man advantage unit, which has talent but hasn’t made it click very well. The opposite is true for penalty kill, though with not nearly as large a split. Washington’s penalty kill is near the bottom of the NHL at a miserable 77.9%, while New York’s is slightly better at 81.1%. As was shown in 2010 by the Caps, a power play can sometimes go dark for a playoff series almost at the drop of a hat, and Lundqvist negates some of the Caps’ power play dominance simply because of how good he is. Still, the Capitals do have an outstanding man advantage unit and despite their penalty kill being worrisome, the Rangers don’t have a stud power play that could victimize them terribly. EDGE: Capitals.
COACHING: These two coaches, Adam Oates and John Tortorella, are complete and polar opposites. Oates is a rookie bench boss who is open with his players, communicates with them constantly and coaches an offensive system. Tortorella is a grizzled veteran, a Stanley Cup champion who is most certainly not a player’s coach, rides his team mercilessly, and coaches a defensive style that might not be perfectly suited for his roster. While Oates has generated a system that maximizes the talent that he has on his roster, Tortorella does the exact opposite, forcing his players to buy in to his system and axing those who do not. Both systems have their merits and both have shown success, but given Tortorella’s experience and savvy, it seems that New York has a slight advantage here. EDGE: Rangers.
All of this being said, the Rangers played the Capitals very tough this year and the only time the Caps were able to get a win, they needed a shootout to do it. In addition, the Rangers have established this season to be a great puck possession team, which the Caps are not (statistically, at least). As a result, this series is sure to be a long, tough one, and it will be thrilling playoff hockey to watch. It always is.
Harry Hawkings is a college student credentialed to cover the Capitals for RtR. Follow him on Twitter here for all your news needs this season.