April 12, 2011
The Capitals would eventually win the series in seven games, as rookie goalie Semyon Varlamov(notes) helped save them with two shutouts. But the Rangers' template was set: Block shots, take away space from Alex Ovechkin(notes) and allow Henrik Lundqvist(notes) to be the most important factor in the game. It was a template the Montreal Canadiens applied in their upset of the top-seeded Capitals last season.
Will we see another first-round failure from the Capitals as the conference's top seed? It all depends on whether their change in philosophy and the additions to their roster really have made them a different type of playoff team.
No. 1 Washington Capitals vs. No. 8 New York Rangers
Wednesday, April 13 New York at Washington, 7:30 p.m.
Friday, April 15 New York at Washington, 7:30 p.m.
Sunday, April 17 Washington at New York, 3 p.m.
Wednesday, April 20 Washington at New York, 7:30 p.m.
*Saturday, April 23 New York at Washington, 3 p.m.
*Monday, April 25 Washington at New York, TBD
*Wednesday, April 27 New York at Washington, TBD
* If necessary
All times Eastern
One of the major problems with the Capitals in last postseason's loss to the Canadiens was at center. Nicklas Backstrom(notes) did his part with nine points in seven games, but the Caps simply didn't get anything going behind him at the pivot. This season, they're much better up the gut: Jason Arnott(notes) is a proven veteran and Marcus Johansson(notes) has emerged as a solid center.
Whether it was due to a new system or a new attitude or an injury, Alex Ovechkin's goals (32) were down significantly in the regular season. He has 40 points in 28 career playoff games. Alex Semin is looking to become dangerous in the playoffs again after failing to tally a goal vs. Montreal.
The Rangers are obviously going to miss Ryan Callahan(notes) here, and not just because he had two goals in three games against the Caps this season. He worked well with Brandon Dubinsky(notes), who led the team with 24 goals and 54 points. They need Artem Anisimov(notes), Derek Stepan(notes), Vinny Prospal(notes), Brian Boyle(notes) and, dare we say it, Chris Drury(notes) to contribute timely offense.
Then there's Marian Gaborik(notes), who is a game-changer. He hasn't scored a goal since March 20, and hasn't appeared in a playoff series since 2008 (when he had one assist in six games vs. Colorado as a member of the Wild). The Rangers desperately need him, especially on special teams, to show up.
Getting him back is essential, because fellow puck-moving defenseman Dennis Wideman(notes) could miss the first round with an injury. The Capitals have a mix of solid young players like John Carlson(notes) and some beef with guys like Scott Hannan(notes) and John Erskine(notes).
For the Rangers, Marc Staal(notes) and Dan Girardi(notes) are one of the top shutdown pairings in the league, and will see copious amounts of Ovi. Ryan McDonagh(notes) and Mike Sauer(notes) have both come into their own this season, while Bryan McCabe(notes) offers veteran depth. This group plays well in front of Lundqvist and, as is team tradition, blocks a hell of a lot of shots.
The Capitals will win or fall short of the Cup based on the play of Michal Neuvirth(notes) and/or Semyon Varlamov. Both have had their moments of brilliance this season, and both have surrendered goals they shouldn't have this season. Neuvirth is expected to get the green light to start the series, which is fine: Varlamov came off the pine to beat the Rangers two years ago. He's better out of the bullpen.
Lundqvist could win this series on his own, and there aren't many other goaltenders you can say that about. The book on him in the playoffs: Shoot high and get in tight on the crease for chances. What the Rangers need is what they got from him in 2009: a win (or two) in D.C. to start the series and some serious frustration from the Capitals, as they remember another goaltender who stole a series from them last spring.
This is the Caps Rap. Part 2.
Bruce Boudreau nearly lost his job in December when the Capitals couldn't win a game and the entire ordeal was playing out on pay cable. But he didn't. He could have just allowed this team to play the same style it had in previous seasons, which ended in a playoff defeats. But he didn't. So Boudreau brings this Capitals team into the playoffs with a new emphasis on team defense; we'll see if it translates into success. The heat's on Bruce after his team's feeble offensive showing against Montreal and its inability to advance to the conference finals on his watch.
Yes, John Tortorella can be volatile, as a saturated Caps fan in the 100 level found out in 2009. But he can also be a damn good coach when it comes to manipulating the lineup and getting his team to commit to his system.
Essentially, it comes down to this: Tortorella coaches his team in a way that seems perfect for upsetting the Caps teams Boudreau has previously led to the playoffs. Does that change now that the Caps' philosophy has?
The Capitals were 15th in the NHL on the power play (17.5 percent, 263 chances) and second on the kill (85.6 percent, 299 times shorthanded). Arguably, it was their power play that lost them the Canadiens series, going 1 for 33.
Rangers were 18th in the NHL on the power play (16.9 percent, 290 chances) and 10th on the kill (83.7 percent, 257 times shorthanded). Callahan was among their leaders in ice time on both units.
What in the name of Charlie Sheen …
We covered this when it was a T-shirt. It's still unabashed hubris from a team that hasn't won anything but ridicule in the playoffs.
The roster and philosophical changes for the Capitals appear to have corrected some of the major deficiencies they've had in the playoffs, but that remains to be seen in actual postseason play. They've had the horses before; but if Semin and Green and the power play fail again, and if the kids between the pipes let in some critical softies, it could be another stunner.
For the Rangers … well, they need Lundqvist to steal a couple, and hope that they can plant some seeds of doubt early for the Capitals in front of an edgy fan base. They also need Marian Gaborik to score a goal. You know, for a change.
Prediction: Capitals in six. Their focus has been on the playoffs since Game 1 of the regular season, and that focus will be rewarded.