You really could not ask for better first round matchups this spring. Boston versus hated Montreal, Pittsburgh versus bitter in-state rival Philadelphia and the streaking Hurricanes against the recently slumping Devils. For all the great matchups just mentioned, is anything going to be better than watching Alexander Ovechkin at MSG? The most historic arena in North America is going to be home to the NHL’s biggest star. This is the NHL’s marketing dream, but forget the marketing side, we are here to evaluate which team is more likely to win this dynamic first round matchup.
This one is not even close. The Rangers have Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes and he is easily one of the top five netminders in all of hockey. With an Olympic gold medal on his mantel, you cannot say the Swedish netminder lacks intense playoff-like experience. His form is terrific, his ability to maintain his focus is tremendous and he is the ultimate competitor. He is hands down the Rangers’ best player and if he struggles at all, the Rangers won’t be long for this series.
In Washington’s net, you have the exact opposite of Lundqvist with Jose Theodore. The former Hart Trophy winner can be Patrick Roy one night and Jocelyn Thibault the next. Consider last season, when he was tremendous against the Wild for Colorado and then terrible against the high-flying Red Wings. Theodore will get plenty of goal support from the team in front of him, but if he starts letting in goals at the wrong time it could spell the Capitals’ downfall. To be honest, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Simeon Varlamov get a shot in the Capitals net if he struggles.
You read names like Wade Redden and Derek Morris and instantly recognize these players as being big-name guys. They once were but aren’t anymore. Add in Michal Rozsival and Paul Mara and the Rangers have an easy defense to identify. However, in reality, it is the team’s two young defensemen that are the key. New York’s best defenseman is Marc Staal and he will be an extremely important player in this series, as his job will be to lockdown on Alexander Ovechkin. Staal is a tremendous defensive defenseman who somehow doesn’t really get much press in NY, but his ability to play big minutes will be one of the reasons NY has a chance against the high-flying Capitals. Staal is joined by the underrated Dan Girardi who has been the team’s second best defenseman this season. With that six-man unit, the Rangers are strong when it comes to moving the puck but not overly physical. The big question is if they can skate with the high-flying Capitals?
On the Capitals’ back-end you have the odds-on favorite to win the Norris Trophy in Mike Green. Green is not arguably the game’s best offensive defenseman, he is the game’s best offensive defenseman. His shooting prowess and willingness to join the rush, puts pressure on opposing teams and put them on the defensive. Joining Green on the Capitals’ blue line is an unknown group that doesn’t get much press. After Green, only Tom Poti logs more than 20 minutes of ice-time. Poti is no longer an offensive weapon, but he is still a smart player who uses his long stick to his advantage. Throw in Jeff Schultz, Shaone Morrison, Milan Jurcina and Brian Pothier and you have a solid core. Nothing tremendous but they’ve been getting the job done all season long.
The Rangers will be relying heavily on Chris Drury to pick up his game in the playoffs as he always does. The veteran forward is the glue that holds his team together and will be looked upon to score big goals when needed most. New York’s most talented offensive player is Scott Gomez and he too needs to be in high gear if NY has a shot. Toss in Markus Naslund, Nikolai Zherdev and Nikolai Antropov and you have some solid scoring forwards. However, the difference makers for the Rangers are probably going to be Sean Avery and Brandon Dubinsky. If this team can get offense from three lines, then every game should be very tight.
The Capitals have one of the best groups of forwards in the NHL. You have the NHL’s top sniper in Alexander Ovechkin, one of the game’s top passers in Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin’s wicked shot and the likes of Laich, Kozlov, Fedorov and Nylander as well. Simply, this team is loaded offensively. With the depth the Capitals have, it is hard to imagine the Rangers slowing them down consistenly.
Washington’s power play is 2nd best (percentage wise) in the NHL and that surprises no one. The Rangers, on the other hand, are 29th in the league. However, New York has the best penalty killing percentage in the NHL and Washington is middling at 17th overall. Special teams could be the difference in this series and I guess we will see if a good power play beats a good penalty kill, or vice versa.
As for coaching, Bruce Boudreau has gone a great job with his group since taking over last season but has never done it in the playoffs. I know this is only his second year on the job but John Tortorella has a Stanley Cup ring and that gives him the edge in my opinion.
Finally, I’d say the leadership and willingness to sacrifice of both teams is a wash.
How the Rangers win this series: Get to Jose Theodore early and cut his confidence down heading into crazy MSG, shutdown the Capitals’ power play and get tremendous goaltending from Lundqvist.
How the Capitals win this series: Don’t let the playoff pressure bother them, use their speed on the Rangers’ defense and Boudreau has to win the matchup battle.
Prediction: Washington in 6 games.