After four days of practices, meetings, media scrums, practices, meetings and more media scrums the Capitals and New York Rangers will finally butt helmets Thursday night in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals [CSN, 6:30 Capitals Central].
It will be the third playoff meeting in four years between the two teams.
“It seems like we know their players as well as we know our own players,” Jason Chimera said. “It’s always fun to play the Rangers.”
Here’s a position-by-position look at how the two teams match up and our series predicition:
Forwards: The Rangers are solid but unspectacular up front. Derek Stepan [pronounced Steppen, as in Steppenwolf] has emerged as a true top-line center [18 goals, 44 points] between Carl Hagelin [10-14-24] and Ryan Callahan [16-15-31]. “He’s a hard-nosed guy, he blocks shots. He’s a fun guy to play against and a guy you’d love to have on your team,” Chimera said. Look for Callahan to get in the face of Alex Ovechkin all series long, just as he did last spring. The Rangers’ second line of Brad Richards [11-23-34] between Rick Nash [21-21-42] and Mats Zuccarello [3-5-8] can also dominate stretches of games. However, the Capitals’ top six forwards of Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Marcus Johansson, Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer and Marty Erat are far more explosive and capable of winning games themselves. The Rangers might have a slight edge with their bottom six forwards, although not having a big center like Brian Boyle [right knee] for faceoffs will hurt the Blueshirts.
Defense: The Capitals’ decision to unite Mike Green [team-high 24:51 of ice time] with Karl Alzner [20:57] has proven to be a good one because it gives the Caps better balance with their second pair of John Erskine [plus-10] and John Carlson [plus-11]. The unheralded third pairing of Jack Hillen [3-6-9, plus-9] and rookie Steve Oleksy [1-8-9-plus-9] has been remarkably efficient this season. For the Rangers, look for Ryan McDonagh [24:21] and Dan Girardi [25:24] to draw the assignment of stopping the Ovechkin line. That duo held Ovechkin to three goals and one assist in seven games last season. That leaves a second pairing of Michael Del Zotto [3-18-21, plus-6] and Anton Stralman [4-3-7, plus-14] to deal with the Caps’ potent second line. It’s the Rangers’ third pairing of former Capital Steve Eminger [0-3-3, plus-9] and John Moore [1-6-7, plus-4] that the Caps might be able to take advantage of most.
Goaltending: Henrik Lundqvist [24-16-3, 2.05] likely will be a finalist for the Vezina Trophy again this season and has played in 41 more playoff games than Braden Holtby. Lundqvist, 31, clearly has the better career resume, but he has a playoff record of 25-30 with a 2.31 GAA. “He’s tough to beat from anywhere,” Caps right wing Troy Brouwer said. “There aren’t many holes in his game. We just have to get traffic in front of him.” Holtby, 23, went 23-12-1 with a 2.58 GAA and won nine of his final 10 starts of the season. He made his mark in last year’s playoffs, going 7-7 with a 1.95 GAA. Holtby can play the puck as well as any goalie in the league and the Caps will use those skills to break the Rangers’ forechecking schemes.
[Slight] Edge: Rangers
Special Teams: The Capitals’ power play finished No. 1 in the NHL [26.8 percent] for a reason. The top unit of Backstrom, Ribeiro, Ovechkin, Brouwer and Green can be almost unstoppable once it gets set up in the offensive zone and should give the Rangers’ penalty kill [15th in the NHL at 81.1 percent] trouble. The key, of course, is getting those power plays. The Rangers are the least penalized team in the NHL, while the Caps rank ninth. The Rangers’ power play ranks 23rd in the NHL with 24 goals, 20 fewer than the Caps. However, Washington’s penalty kill, although better in recent games, ranks 27th in the NHL and has been its Achilles’ heel all season.
Coaching: John Tortorella, 54, is in his fifth season with the Rangers and has a career coaching record of 410-330-37-67. His playoff record is 38-39 in seven playoff appearances, including a Stanley Cup victory with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004. Adam Oayes, 50, went 27-18-3 in his first season as an NHL coach. As an assistant under Peter DeBoer he helped the Devils beat the Rangers in last year’s Eastern Conference Finals. This will be a clash in coaching styles. Tortorella is brash and plays a defense-oriented game. Oates is more likable and likes to balance strong positional defense with an offensive-oriented flare.
Intangibles: Only one player from each team has won a Stanley Cup. Troy Brouwer won one with the Chicago Blackhawks in 2010. Brad Richards won one under Tortorella in Tampa in 2004. There is also a wounded animal factor to consider. The Capitals were eliminated by the Rangers in seven games last spring and that almost always provides extra incentive.
The pick: Capitals in six.