The National Hockey League announced their first round Stanley Cup Playoff schedule on their own television network (The NHL Network) on Sunday night at 10 pm. So without further adieu, here is the schedule for the matchup between the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers:
Game 1: Wednesday, April 13 at Washington, 7:30 p.m.
Game 2: Friday, April 15 at Washington, 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Sunday, April 17 at New York, 3:00 p.m.
Game 4: Wednesday, April 20 at New York, 7:00 p.m.
*Game 5: Saturday, April 23 at Washington, 3:00 p.m.
*Game 6: Monday, April 25 at New York, TBD
*Game 7: Wednesday, April 27 at Washington, TBD
So the series starts hot and heavy with three games in five days before there is a two day break leading up to game four in Madison Square Garden. Game five, if necessary, would be in Washington on NBC at 3 pm on April 23rd. Game three is also on NBC while the series opener will be shown on VERSUS and also Comcast Sports Net (CSN).
For the Caps, this is what they’ve been waiting nearly 12 months for, a shot at redemption after blowing a 3-1 series lead to the Montreal Canadiens last spring. The Capitals have made some big changes to their roster, and more importantly, have become a better defensive team since the debacle against the Habs in 2010. Defensemen Mike Green is expected to return to the lineup for game one while Dennis Wideman is pretty much out for the first round.
With the high expectations comes pressure for Washington. Caps Coach Bruce Boudreau and captain Alexander Ovechkin are under the microscope locally and across North America. The change in style has certainly lowered the glamorous statistics that several individuals on this club historically enjoyed and Boudreau did a superb job of getting his club to forget individual awards, point totals, and big contracts to focus on winning when it matters most. The Great #8 has been adamant that all he cares about is winning and the fact that he and Alexander Semin have been spending lots of time with trade deadline acquisition Jason Arnott is an indicator that these guys are tired of the playoff loser label.
Here are my keys for the Caps to win this series:
1. Match the Rangers physical intensity – New York, who are coached by the very intense John Tortorella, will have a pretty simple game plan to dump the puck and try and hit the Caps to death. Washington needs to be ready for that and the best way to beat that is to get the Blueshirts to be the ones constantly turning and chasing the puck in their own zone. The Caps must be physical and willing to take the body. Finesse will not win against New York and the Capitals cannot turn the puck over at the offensive blue line. The Rangers outscored the Capitals 18-6 in the four games played this season so there is absolutely no reason for the Caps to be overlooking New York. The Rangers are mostly a young, blue collar type of team but they do have some snipers in Marian Gaborik and Cap-killer Vaclav Prospal. The best way to get numbers 10 and 20 off of their game is to get in their grill and hit them. Washington must not allow these two pure goal scorers to find space in the Caps zone where they can set up shop and unleash their deadly shots.
2. Get traffic in front of Henrik Lundqvist – King Henrik is one of the best goalies in the NHL and he can win a playoff series on his own. The Caps were blanked by the superstar Swedish net minder twice this season. Washington must be willing, unlike last spring, to pay the physical price and get bodies to the net. In addition, they need to get the puck there. The Rangers are very good at blocking shots so Boudreau must direct his blueliners where to put the biscuit so it can make it to the cage then the Capitals must go there and score the ugly goals. A perimeter game is not going to get it done so it will be interesting to see if a guy like Semin will go into the higher traffic areas to take more advantage of his super skill set. Lundqvist has played nearly all of the Rangers games down the stretch and New York has no real back up goalie so anything Washington can do to get him off of his game is needed.
3. Limit turnovers – The Caps cannot turn the puck over from their offensive blue line on back. The Rangers, if they get a lead, will no doubt try and play a neutral zone trap and counter attack the Capitals. In addition, when tied or trailing, Tortorella’s crew will apply a vicious forecheck on Washington. The Caps centers will be the key to the break out as the Rangers will likely jam the walls. Nicklas Backstrom, Jason Arnott, and Marcus Johansson will be the ones who have to be in the proper position to burn New York’s pressure and use their skill and speed to get the Caps some odd man rushes in transition.
4. Solid Goaltending – Michal Neuvirth, who is expected to the get the game one start, and Semyon Varlamov, if he plays, must be on their respective games from the outset of this series. In game one of the past two post season openers Jose Theodore allowed some questionable goals to put Washington behind the eight ball early against the Rangers in 2009 and the Habs in 2010. #30 and #1 can’t do that and they also must be positionally sound to prevent allowing rebounds to a Rangers team that is offensively challenged and tries to compensate for that by going to the net hard.
5. Win the Special Teams Battle – The first thing the Caps need to do is be disciplined and not take retaliation penalties against a team that will try and goad you into those type of infractions. Sean Avery is the Rangers number one pest and he will do his best to get Washington off of their game. In addition, the best way to stay out of the box is to work hard and move your feet. Penalties happen from laziness and the Capitals can’t afford to put the Rangers on the man advantage. The Caps have improved their PK this year but the best way to do well in the playoffs is to not take many penalties. On the power play, the Caps showed signs of breaking out of their season long slump with the man advantage. The power play must continue to be simplified with pucks coming from the point with traffic in front. The Caps like to employ forwards on the points, at times, so Oveckhin, Brooks Laich and any other forward put back there must remember to be responsible. Shorthanded goals in the playoffs can really change momentum in a game and series so it is imperative that Boudreau’s crew not allow any.
6. Maintain Their Focus & Play It One Shift At a Time – A series is not won in a single game. The Caps, if they get ahead in the series, can’t get complacent or start looking ahead. On the flip side, if they get behind they can’t panic and stop playing their system. That is what happened in the two blow out losses to New York in the regular season. Given that Washington had a 10 minute lapse to start game five last year that likely cost them the Montreal series, I don’t think we’ll see that this year, but that is easier said than done. The first round is the hardest one to get out of and teams that have success don’t get too high or too low. They stick to their system and play it one shift at a time. The Caps must learn to do that this post season.
In summary, this series is going to come down to hard work and determination. The Rangers definitely bring that and for the Caps to win they need to match or beat New York’s intensity and desire. Washington is the more skilled team but playoff hockey is a different animal where many contests are of the one goal variety. The Capitals played over 40 one goal games this season and as a result should be more battle tested. New York is a club that never quits and proof of that is the way they made the playoffs on the last day of the season as well as their 5-3 victory over the Boston Bruins on Monday night after trailing 3-0. Coach Tortorella’s crew believes in themselves and the only way to beat a team like that is to out work them. If the Caps don’t do that this post season, then there is no doubt that there will be changes in Washington.