There was some pretty positive feedback from our Behind Enemy Lines piece that previewed the Rangers' first round series against the Penguins, so I thought we'd bring it back to help get us ready for the Blueshirts' second round opponent; the Washington Capitals.
Rob Parker from Japers' Rink was kind enough to answer some questions I had for him about the Capitals' strengths, weaknesses, and chances in this series. I was surprised by some of his responses, but I can't pretend that I don't have a bias in regards to how assess teams, especially the team that has its logo or name on at least five different t-shirts that I own.
Without further adieu, here's the second installment of the 2015 NHL Playoffs Behind Enemy Lines segment, it's time to talk about the goal scoring machine that is Alex Ovechkin and the perpetually under-appreciated play maker named Nicklas Backstrom.
1. How dependent are the Capitals on the success of their elite power play? In the regular season series the Caps' power play went 4 for 13 (30.8%), what is it about their power play unit that makes them so dangerous (seriously, we'll take all the help we can get on how a power play should function)?
RP: The Caps' offense was relatively dependent on the power play during the regular season, but managed to dispatch the Islanders without much help from the power play (one goal in the series). They should have the depth to score at even strength, but obviously the power play gives them a greater margin for error.
Why is the power play so dangerous? Well, they've got an elite shooter on one wing, an elite passer on the other wing, and then a great shot/pass threat at the point. Round it out with a couple versatile players that are good at passing/shooting/puck retrieval and you've got a great power play set up. They organize it to maximize Backstrom's passing options at any given time, and force the PK to give the Caps an option. Generally the Caps will settle for what is given, with Ovi always lurking to punish teams that lose their structure.
RP: Kuznetsov could be great. His skating, puck skills, and poise are all exceptional. He's still got some bad habits he needs to break from his time in the KHL and he could use a little more strength, but he's very close to being a dynamic player. He needs to find a bit more consistency, but he's close. He could easily become a top second line center; a guy who could conceivably play top line minutes in a pinch. He's not there yet, but he's certainly got that offensive skill set. He's shown flashes of that sneaky defensive stickwork that Datsyuk is known for, and if he manages to develop that part of his game he could end up one of the best two-way centers in the game, but now we're way ahead of ourselves.
3. We're going to be hearing a lot of this word until the Rangers or Capitals win four games, so I apologize in advance, but... how do you feel about the depth of your team? What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses in regards to the Capitals' roster and depth?
RP: The Caps have good depth, but it's not necessarily scoring depth. They have five defensemen that have spent a lot of time on a top defensive pair on a good team. There isn't a pair that really needs to be hidden or protected. They've got a lot of big, physical forwards that can skate. All four lines can and will punish opposing defenders. That gives Trotz a lot of relatively interchangeable parts to work with (Joel Ward, Troy Brouwer, Tom Wilson, Jason Chimera, Eric Fehr, Jay Beagle, and Brooks Laich have all played on 3 or more lines this season). What they could use is a little bit more skill depth; where are the goals coming from if not Nick and Ovi? Well, if Kuznetsov can keep up the way he played the last few games of the Islanders series, maybe there's the answer. The Rangers are much more battle tested and deep on defense than the Islanders, so I'm a little skeptical that Kuz will be able to keep this up.
4. We've danced this dance five times in the last seven years and four times in the last five years, are we all in agreement that this is officially a rivalry... but still not THE rivalry for our respective teams?
RP: Yeah, we don't like you guys, but you're not number one on our hit list. That belongs (for most Caps fans) to the team you guys just beat. Part of that is just history, for those of us that remember the 90s. Part of it is likely geography; we both have closer rivals than each other. Part of it is that even with the recent history, the Rangers haven't beaten a Caps team that was poised to do any damage. Maybe if the Rangers had pulled out one of the series against the Boudreau Caps we'd be more upset, but the Hunter Caps and the Oates Caps were never going to make a run to the Cup, so those losses weren't quite as painful.
5. What is your prediction for this series and what key factors did you consider when divining how this one will end?
RP: The Caps just went toe-to-toe with one of the best possession teams in the league, and they were able to win. Sure, they got some help in the form of Hamonic's injury, but they also helped themselves in the form of Visnovsky's and de Haan's injuries. That's been their approach all year, a heavy, physical game, and it worked for the first round. With the Rangers dressing an already banged up Yandle, and an old and small Boyle, I don't see all of the Rangers D making it through this series in good health. I also think it's surprising that the Rangers couldn't win the possession battle against the Penguins, even with the defensive injuries and lack of depth up front. So that's what makes me optimistic about the Caps.
On the other hand... The Rangers have much better individual and team defense than the Islanders, and as good as Halak was, Lundqvist is better. Holtby's numbers were quite good, but he wasn't strong by the eye test and I'm not confident he's going to match Lundqvist's game. The Rangers may not be quite as fast as the Islanders, or may not have been quite the possession beasts, but they're older and more battle tested. The middle lines for the Rangers aren't going to go MIA like the Isles' did.
Tough series to call, so we'll cop out and go with... someone in seven.
It's strange, I know that I'm supposed to really "hate" the Capitals, but I just don't. I get the feeling that most Caps fans feel the same way about the Rangers (and Rangers fans). My gut tells me that the regular season series being 3-1-0 in favor of the Rangers doesn't mean quite as much the fact that these teams have gone to seven games the last two times they have crossed paths in the playoffs.
I do expect the Rangers to emerge the victors in this series, but I also believe it'll take at least six games for this thing to come to a resolution. As terrifying as the Caps' power play is, the Rangers have a penchant for timely penalty killing, at the end of the day, Henrik Lundqvist is the guy that is there to bail the Rangers' out from their mistakes and/or keep them alive in games they have no business having a chance to win. I wrote plenty of game threads this season for Blueshirt Banter, and I remember that my favorite word in my previews for Rangers vs Capitals games was discipline. The Rangers aren't as healthy as they'd like to be, and they aren't exactly playing their best hockey right now, but if they can limit the amount of time Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom have on the power play, they will be doing themselves a big favor.
A big thanks to Rob Parker from Japers Rink for taking the time to answer these questions and give us a very valuable and different perspective on what we are all in for starting Thursday night. Four wins down, just twelve more to go.
If you are capable of being courteous, humble, self-aware, and socially intelligent, head over to Japers Rink and talk some hockey with their community. I honestly can't say enough good things about the work that the writing staff does over there.
Let's go Rangers!