capitals vs rangers: playoff preview by the numbers

as the rangers and capitals get set to square off in the playoffs, a deeper dive into the tale of the teams' seasons sets the stage for what should be a quick series

after a historic regular season performance in peter laviolette's first season behind the bench, the 2024 stanley cup playoffs are upon us. the rangers set new high-water marks of 55 wins and 114 points over the course of the 82 game marathon, clinching the franchise's fourth presidents' trophy as the nhl's top regular season team.

finishing atop the league wide standings means that the blueshirts will have home ice advantage as far as they advance in the playoffs, a strong reward for a team whose 30-11-0 record at madison square garden is the second best home record in the league behind only the colorado avalanche.

lining up across from the rangers will be an old acquaintance. against all odds, the washington capitals emerged from the pack to claim the final wild card spot in the eastern conference. washington was busy ahead of the trade deadline, trading away a trio of roster players in anthony mantha, joel edmundson, and longtime franchise stalwart evgeny kuznetsov in exchange for five draft picks over the next three years.

in spite of the roster subtractions, washington pressed onward and hung around the playoff bubble long enough for an opportunity to present itself. the capitals entered their final regular season game in a "win and in" scenario against the philadelphia flyers. circumstances at play made it necessary for philadelphia to pull its goalie late in the third period of a tie game in the hopes of netting the go-ahead goal in regulation. the gambit backfired as washington scored the playoff clinching goal into an empty net to claim the final playoff spot and knock philadelphia, pittsburgh, and detroit out of contention.

the empty net tally set the stage for the capitals and rangers to clash in the post-season for the first time since 2015. these metropolitan division rivals split the season series straight down the middle, as both teams went 2-2-0 by defending home ice on each occasion, and even matched each other in goals with both teams scoring nine apiece across the four meetings.

if there's any criticism to levy against the rangers about their regular season performance, it's the lackluster even strength play. from alain vigneault to gerard gallant to peter laviolette, the blueshirts historically ride high level goaltending and finishing talent, alongside the more recent addition of strong special teams units, to results better than their shot and scoring chance numbers would indicate.

while igor shesterkin battled through a sub-par first half performance, jonathan quick was there to give new york the reliable goaltending it has grown accustomed to over the years. shesterkin rounded into form following the all-star break, and the rangers rode the wave of shesterkin and their power play and penalty kill units to the top of the standings. the even strength numbers remained pedestrian throughout, but a dive into washington's performance over the course of the season reveals a deeply flawed opponent that may not be able to take advantage of new york's shortcomings.

if you've heard anything about this capitals team leading into the playoffs, you've heard about their goal differential. ceding 37 more goals than it scored throughout the regular season, washington qualified for the playoffs with the worst goal differential of any team since the 1991 playoffs saw the hartford whalers (-38) and vancouver canucks (-72) squeak into the 16 team tournament. only 21 teams comprised the nhl at that point in time, so some less than stellar teams were making it to the postseason when nearly 80% of the league qualified.

washington's -37 goal differential was the sixth worst margin in the league, trailing the likes of the ottawa senators (-26, 13 points back of the playoffs) and arizona coyotes (-18, 21 points back of the playoffs) among others. with horrendous even strength performance both in terms of goals as well as shot and scoring chance-based metrics, and mediocre special teams that were not major drivers of on-ice success, how did washington get this far?

the biggest factor is the team's strong record in one goal games. washington sported a 20-2-11 record in games decided by a single goal, while sporting a 20-29-0 record in games decided by multiple goals. for comparison's sake, new york went 23-3-4 in one goal games and 32-20-0 in games with a multi-goal margin.

for as unique and random of a sport as hockey is, one aspect it shares in common with other sports is the simple notion that outscoring your opponents by bigger margins over a large sample is a sign of team strength. just as it goes for one run baseball games and one possession football games, having a strong record in one goal games compared to multi goal games is not a sign that any team has a secret sauce and cracked the code on how to play tight games. if it's anything, it's good fortune, that's about it.

scoring as many goals as possible while giving up as few as possible is the end goal of the game. as simple as that sounds, it's a thought tends to get lost on some people. the capitals still have some holdovers from the teams that won a pair of presidents trophies and the 2018 stanley cup, namely alex ovechkin, john carlson, and t.j. oshie.

washington sports some capable depth players, as 4th line center nic dowd was floated as someone that could have been acquired in the role the rangers have deployed alex wennberg in since his deadline acquisition. even still, the rangers have the capitals outmanned essentially from lineup spots one through 20. they have the better forwards, defenseman, and goaltenders on paper, and the regular season results bear that out.

of course, the rangers have a history of making things more difficult than they need to be during the playoffs. this a series the rangers should comfortably roll through, but would it really be so shocking to see an old rival give the blueshirts all they can handle? we'll find out when the puck drops on sunday.

prediction: rangers over capitals in five games