Kevin Hayes (Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
For the fifth time in seven seasons, the Rangers and Capitals will meet in the post-season. The matchup to watch will be in goal, as Washington’s Braden Holtby is having an incredible year and will take on New York’s perennial Vezina Trophy contender Henrik Lundqvist.
WHAT WE LEARNED IN ROUND 1:
RANGERS: The Blueshirts have all sorts of weapons on offense, but don’t need much offense at all to win. All four of their first-round wins against Pittsburgh came via a 2-1 score, and head coach Alain Vigneault utilizes his deep defense corps to limit the number of shots on star netminder Henrik Lundqvist. In fact, the Rangers’ average number of shots allowed per playoff game (26.2) against the Pens is the second-best among teams still active in the post-season. If you only average a little more than eight shots per period against Lundqvist, you’re not likely to beat the Blueshirts.
CAPITALS: The Caps are still Alex Ovechkin’s team, but in Round 1 they hung on to beat the Islanders in seven games because goalie Braden Holtby continued his magnificence in Washington’s net. And their penalty kill – which was a mediocre 14th overall in the regular season – turned aside all 14 Isles power plays. They won’t beat the Rangers if Ovechkin is held off the scoresheet, but they still need a disciplined defensive effort to match the one they’ll be facing.
MVP SO FAR:
RANGERS: Defenseman Ryan McDonagh was a beast for the Blueshirts against the Pens averaging 25:45 a game – that’s nearly three-and-a-half minutes more than his next-most utilized teammate (Dan Girardi at 22:24 a night). The Rangers captain contributed on offense as well, most notably with a game-winning goal in Game 1. McDonagh also added three assists to finish tied with Derick Brassard and Rick Nash as the top point getters in their first round. He’s everything you want in a top-pairing defenseman. And he’s just 25.
CAPITALS: Holtby posted a 1.63 goals-against average (third-best among goalies in the opening round) and .943 save percentage (second-best) against the Islanders, and even in the last two losses of the series, he posted save percentages of .946 and .952. The 25-year-old wasn’t perfect – the goal he surrendered to Frans Nielsen in Game 7 was a softie – but Holtby has maintained the regular-season form that brought him into Vezina Trophy discussions. Ovechkin is Washington’s top talent, but Holtby was its best talent in the first round.
THREE THINGS TO WATCH:
RANGERS: 1. Star winger Martin St-Louis had just a single assist against the Pens in the first round, but after averaging approximately 16 minutes of ice time per game through the first four games, the 39-year-old logged a series-best 24:17 in Game 5 – and the six shots on net he had in that game were more than his combined shot total (4) in Games 1-4. Coach Alain Vigneault’s confidence in him is established by the minutes he gives him, and for the next game, at least, it’s likely St-Louis will be afforded more opportunities as a follow-up to that strong showing. 2. Winger Rick Nash was mentioned in Hart Trophy debates this year, but after a strong regular season that included 42 goals, the 30-year-old scored just once in the first round. He did lead the team in shots (18) and has given them solid minutes on the penalty kill. Nash has the capability to get in Holtby’s kitchen and deliver some knockout blows on offense, and won’t struggle to score for much longer. 3. Lundqvist posted the league’s second-best GAA (1.53) and third-best SP (.939) in the first round and hasn’t shown any ill effects from the vascular injury that caused him to miss 25 regular season games. If he keeps his numbers at their current level, the Blueshirts will almost certainly move on to the Eastern Conference Final. And the 33-year-old understands he may not be on many more teams this well positioned to win a Stanley Cup, so expect him to be as focused as ever.
CAPITALS: 1. The Rangers will focus their defensive efforts on a familiar foe in Ovechkin, but they’ll also be challenged by dynamic center Evgeny Kuznetsov, who scored the game- and series-winner for Washington in Game 7 and finished the first round tied for the team lead in scoring with three goals. The 22-year-old Russian doesn’t look at all overwhelmed in his first NHL post-season; no doubt his three playoff tournaments in the KHL – when he combined for 13 goals and 21 points in 41 games with Traktor Chelyabinsk – helped prepare him for this stage. 2. Star center Nicklas Backstrom led the Caps in points (six) and goals in the first round, which is double the amount of playoff offense he produced for Washington in 2012-13, when he had just one goal and three points in seven games. However, Backstrom struck for all his points against the Isles in Games 2-4, and twice in the final three games of the series he logged less than 19 minutes of ice time. He’ll need to be a more consistent contributor to take the heat off Ovechkin and Kuznetsov. 3. Veteran defenseman Brooks Orpik was one of Washington’s biggest off-season signings – and in Round 1, he showed why the team valued him as a $5.5 million-a-year player, leading the Capitals’ group of penalty killers in ice time with an average of 1:58 per game. He’s also their most physical player, with a team-best 41 hits (Ovechkin is second, with 31) – and when the second-most-physical Caps blueliner has just 19 hits, you can see how important Orpik is to their cause. He’ll have to give Rangers forwards a tough time in Washington’s zone if the Capitals are to outlast the Blueshirts and make it to the conference final.
WHAT THE STATS SAY by Dom Luszczyszyn:
RANGERS: Many expected the Presidents’ Trophy winners to roll over the depleted Penguins, and while five games seems like they were right, the numbers suggest the series was a lot closer than that. Just one goal and a couple of shot attempts separated the teams at 5-on-5 and the Rangers will have to do much more against a hungry Washington team that will likely control possession in this series like they did during the regular season. The Rangers were one of the highest efficiency shooters during the regular season and that dropped significantly in the first round. If they can’t win the possession battle they’ll need to find that scoring touch again and hope Lundqvist continues his stellar performance.
CAPITALS: The drop in numbers across the board in round one is misleading for the Capitals as they faced an Islanders team that was almost their equal. Washington is an extremely well balanced team that is above average across the board, but very little about them is elite at the team level. Their one trump card is a lethal powerplay, but they’ll be going up against one of the best penalty-killing units in the league, so that’s likely a wash. To win this one, the Capitals will need to control the play like they did in the regular season and hope that this time it translates to wins.
KEY MATCHUP by Dom Luszczyszyn:
A lot is said about how great Henrik Lundqvist is, but there’s rarely any praise for Braden Holtby who is quietly becoming one of the league’s best goalies. The two goalies were dead-even this season and have been over the past three years as well. The only edge between these two is when the shots are up close in high danger areas where Holtby has been much better this season. Scoring chances are obviously harder to save than shots from the outside and if Washington can find a way to get those chances against Lundqvist they’ll have a decent chance of upsetting the regular season champions.
PREDICTION: Rangers in six.