On Saturday afternoon at 3 pm the Washington Capitals will embark on a critical game one of their second round playoff series from Madison Square Garden against the New York Rangers. The Blueshirts, coached by the fiery John Tortorella, are the number one seed in the Eastern Conference after a super regular season while the Caps are coming in as underdogs for the second straight series despite upsetting the Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in round one.
For Alexander Ovechkin, Mike Green, Brooks Laich, Nicklas Backstrom, and Alexander Semin this will be their third venture into the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. So far they are 0-2. Last season they knocked off the Rags in five games before getting swept quickly by the Tampa Bay Lightning. Given that Washington has knocked off the Rangers two of the last three post seasons one has to wonder if perhaps the Capitals have the Rangers number? Maybe, but this is a different Rangers team.
Last spring they faced the Caps without an injured Ryan Callahan and then in the offseason they added a significant piece in center Brad Richards. Washington won that series in 2011 without Dennis Wideman (who had a so-so series, at best, against Boston) so the Rangers aren’t the only ones with a different roster for this matchup. New York is improved but I still think their defense is slow and they benefit a ton from Henrik Lundqvist bailing them out. Washington needs, like they did against Boston, to use their superior speed in the Caps forward to Rangers defense matchup. Guys like Marcus Johansson and Jason Chimera will play a key role once again.
When it comes to matchups, whatever forward-defensive combination coach Dale Hunter uses must contain Marian Gaborik and Richards. If those New York skill guys get on a roll then that spells trouble for Washington. You can bet that Jay Beagle, Karl Alzner, and John Carlson will factor into Hunter’s defensive matchups. As for Ovechkin, he had a rough series against the Bruins because he was facing Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, one of the best defensive pairs in the NHL. The Rangers will likely put Dan Girardi and Mark Staal up against the Gr8. But Ovechkin should be able to overcome Girardi better than he did the Boston duo of Chara and Seidenberg. Ovechkin needs to avoid trying too much one on one or trying to skate through the whole team. His best bet to score is to go to the net in this series. The Rangers defense doesn’t have the ability to move him down low so the Gr8 needs to drive to the cage as much as possible with the puck.
Braden Holtby comes off of a super round one performance and if he doesn’t try to do much and just plays his game, he should be fine. His puckhandling skills help prevented his defensemen from getting run regularly in round one and you can bet Tortorella will be instructing his forwards to pound the Washington defense, especially Green. To me, #52 is a major key to this series. If #52 continues to play well paired with Roman Hamrllik then that gives Hunter two really good defensive pairs to put on the ice (with 27-74) . The Rangers will try to run Green and he needs to be smart about how he plays going into the corners and on the rush. A good series from “Game Over Greenie” likely means the Caps will advance.
If Washington can find a way to win this series, then it signals that Ovechkin and company have finally turned the corner by buying into Hunter’s playoff style.
If not, then many players could be on their way out of town because it would be five straight post seasons without a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.
My prediction: The Caps kick the door in to get to the Final Four with a series victory in six games. Road warriors, baby, road warriors.