And the waiting is over! The New York Rangers finally know who their second round opponent will be. For the fourth time in five years the Rangers and Caps lock horns to see who will advance, and while some may lament the fact that it's yet another Rangers/Capitals series, we can all be thankful that it's not John Tortorella and Dale Hunter behind the respective benches this time around.
While the Rangers did make relatively quick work of their first round opponents, the depleted Pittsburgh Penguins, it wasn't easy. Having all four of their wins coming via a 2-1 score (with two of those wins coming in OT) against a defense that featured Rob Scuderi and Ben Lovejoy getting 20+ minutes a night is pretty disconcerting, though Marc-Andre Fleury did his damnedest to keep Pittsburgh in the series on his own. In what could be seen as a bit of cosmic irony, the Rangers actually out possessed the Penguins (kinda, 51.4% to Pittsburgh's 48.6% at all strengths) while suffering from some harsh shooting regression (7.4% over the five games as opposed to the ~9% over the season). The biggest issue for the boys in blue comes not from a dip in the offensive luck but from the injury to Mats Zuccarello.
The diminutive forward took an unfortunate Ryan McDonagh slap shot in the first period of game five that caught him square in the side of the head and forced him out of the game and indefinitely. Losing Zuccarello is a huge blow to the Rangers as not only do they lose a big part of their creativity and transition offense from their top line but they will try to use Martin St. Louis, who could barely tread water against Pittsburgh's third line, in his role. It's painful to watch what St. Louis has become; passing up shots, not having his stick on the ice, and not even able to hold onto a pass, and if he's getting the Capitals top defense pairing and first line, things will get hairy quickly.
The Washington Capitals are coming off of a seven game opening round thriller that included a little bit of everything; overtimes, good goaltending, bad goaltending, good hits, bad hits, "Can you hear us", "We are louder" (note to Rangers fans, don't participate in this. It's stupid and annoying), and everything in between. For the first time since Bruce Boudreau's high flying 2009-10 Capitals, Washington looks like a legitimate contender for the Stanley Cup. While Barry Trotz may make some weird coaching decisions, as all are wont to do, he has the Capitals playing a structured, well rounded game that Alex Ovechkin has bought into all the way. It doesn't hurt that the Capitals are now developing some depth scoring as well in the form of stud youngster Evgeny Kuznetsov (drafted 25th overall in 2010 because of course he was).
By the numbers
Coming into this series, the numbers seem pretty damn similar (though here be sample size dragons); the Rangers are a 51.4% possession team (again, all numbers are at all strengths and score states) while the Caps come in after seven games a shade lower at 50.5%, even the two teams shooting percentages are similar (7.3% for the Rangers, 7.2% for Washington). This is a really close statistical comparison that is pretty meaningless because of the size of games played and the overwhelming effect that variance has on the proceedings. This series is going to be really close, probably too close to call at some points.
The eye test
I don't think I have to go into how the Rangers play their game, it's speed, quick outlets and passes across the offensive zone to catch the goalie in transition. The Penguins did a good job of getting sticks and skates in passing lanes, breaking up the Rangers offensive flow, though their defense had trouble getting pucks out of the zone quickly enough for the Rangers to be caught flat footed. On the back end, the Rangers did a great job, for the most part, at limiting offensive chances and getting the transitions started up ice with smart puck movement. They still get caught by aggressive forechecks, but it's a positive sign.
The Capitals are a bit of a chameleon, you want to play a physical, "heavy" game? They have the bodies to bang with you. You want to stretch the ice and out skill them? They have the speed and creativity to respond to that as well. Barry Trotz's structure and quick adjustments helped the Capitals overpower the Islanders over seven games though it seems that the Capitals wait to see how a team will play them and then adjust their game to that.
Three ways the Rangers can win the series
1) Limit the penalties. The more the Rangers stay 5on5, the better off they'll be and if/when they take penalties keep a man on Alex Ovechkin. The Islanders used Johnny Boychuk as Ovechkin's shadow all series and it was effective, and while the Rangers probably can't afford to do the same with Ryan McDonagh, a similar strategy should be in play.
2) Target Brooks Orpik and Tim Gleason. Washington's defense is probably underrated (John Carlson, Karl Alzner, Matt Niskanen, and Mike Green are damn good) but there are two pretty big targets that the Rangers can exploit in Brooks "John Scott danced by me for a goal" Orpik and Tim Gleason. The more guys like Chris Kreider and Rick Nash see of Orpik the better off they will be.
3) Shoot early, shoot often. Braden Hotlby is a good goalie prone to giving up the soft goal or two and if the Rangers can generate enough shooting opportunities (something the Caps do a good job in limiting) the Rangers should be able to get some positive regression going their way.
Three ways the Capitals can win the series
1) Beat em down. The Rangers are a skilled, fast, and fast. If the Capitals throw their weight around it can stifle the Rangers offense, especially if St. Louis is going to be getting tougher minutes with Zuccarello out of the lineup.
2) Expose the depth. Mats Zuccarello injury will force all kinds of lineup changes for the Rangers and while their best line of the first round (Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-JT Miller) should stay together the Rangers offense may get awfully top heavy as Jesper Fast or James Sheppard will get bumped up to the third line with Kevin Hayes. The Capitals have the offensive tools on both ends to expose this shuffling.
3) Unleash the Holtbeast. Braden Holtby can tip the scales in this series one way or the other. The Caps will need him to keep up the .930ish sav% he's sporting through seven games.
Rangers in seven. The Rangers and Capitals are very similar teams and I'm not very confident in this prediction. I'd be more confident in the Rangers winning if Zuccarello were healthy, but in the end it comes down to goaltending and I'll never bet against Henrik Lundqvist.