All the previews are out, and a lot of them have the Caps in six; which to be honest seems about right. In the grand scheme of it all, the Capitals are the more talented club and have been for a few seasons now. The Rangers, plagued by inconsistency, have flashes of brilliance that allow many of us that frequent this site to believe that maybe, just maybe, the Blueshirts can do this. This team can beat the Capitals, as they did in the season, but can they do it now in the playoffs, where it obviously truly counts? After reading some previews, looking at all the simple and advanced numbers, and going back over the Caps season a bit (considering I don't watch them game in and game out); I've come up with three keys to look for if the Rangers are to stop the Caps in the first round. Are the keys revolutionary? No. But without them, the Rangers will be gone in four, that much I can guarantee.
1. Keep the Play at Even Strength
While Washington's Power Play only ranks 16th this season (17.5% - low for them compared to last season), there is no reason to awake a potential sleeping giant. The Rangers PK is decent at 10th in the league, but what worries me is the loss of Callahan - which can't be underestimated. On the flip side, while having the Rangers get a Power Play is never a bad thing - at the same time Washington's PK is 2nd in the league. The Blueshirts PP, while solid at times, also makes me want to gouge my eyes out at others. George's statistical preview of the series clearly showed that although the Rangers will most likely get outshot and outchanced in this series, they would be better off letting the even-strength flow of the game dictate that chances than the special teams.
2. Keeping Michael Neuvirth and/or Seymon Varlamov Honest
Michael Neuvirth, I'm sure as you all know by now, will be the starter for Game 1. While I've searched for them, there are few positives for the Rangers at the moment. Neuvrith has played well and has proven he can win in the playoffs at the AHL level with back to back championships with the Hershey Bears. We've also seen what Varlamov is capable of if for any reason he ends up between the pipes. Both goaltenders are young and most likely have solid careers ahead of them, but this is where their questions come into play.
Combined this season, the two goalies played in 75 games, with Neuvirth producing a 9.8 OGVT and Varlamov producing a 8.2 OGVT (GVT is one way to value a player). For comparison, Lundqvist's OGVT for the season was 20.3 - more than double the Washington tandem. Granted, Henrik played almost as many games as the two of them, but theres no denying that Hank has had more of an impact on his team than the two young guns for the Caps.
So how can the Rangers keep Neuvirth and/or Varlamov honest? Make their life hell in front of the net. It seems as though Lundqvist has been getting run all season, and not that I would suggest such an "unsportsmanlike" action, but if it happens in the course of play so be it. Whoever is in net for Washington needs a body in front of them as much as possible. To count on the Rangers making their shots when it counts may not be enough. A pair of skates must be near that crease starting later tonight as much as possible for the Rangers to get these talented goalie prospects off their game.
3. Shutting Down the Caps Offense by Limiting Shots
The three best players at "driving" the play (Quality of Teammate) for the Caps? Backstrom, Knuble, and Ovechkin. These three have also taken the most shots for Washington as well all season long. To top off the shooting talent trifecta, Semin, Johansson and Ovi all have shot percentages over 9, with Semin over 10 (something difficult to do). Point is all of these players must not be given the opportunity of clear shots on Lundqvist. The Rangers, luckily as we all know, have been great at blocking shots all season. Still, the need for solid defensive coverage does not disappear, and by limiting the shots of the above-mentioned players will absolutely raise the chances of success for the Blueshirts.
Overall, the Rangers will be up against it. They will probably get outshot, and (to an extent) outplayed most of the time. The three keys all have a similar theme: which is to not give these players too much respect and time - which I believe the Rangers haven't at all given their results against them during the season especially with their fighting habits between the two teams. Don't count on Marian Gaborik to suddenly awaken and lift the team, at least I'm not. If the Rangers come out, and play the aggressive style that got them into the postseason on Game 82, then the chances of getting to round 2 will go up. Sounds simple, but hockey's a simple game when you think about it.