Alex Ovechkin and Braden Holtby. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
The Capitals outlasted the Islanders 2-1 Monday in Game 7 of their first-round series, but Caps fans and players shouldn't get too confident yet. Why? Because their next opponent is the Rangers – a far more dangerous opponent than the injury-ravaged Isles ever could be.
In their first-round series against the New York Islanders, the Capitals bent, but didn't break. A microcosm of that theme could be seen in Game 7 Monday in Washington, when the Caps allowed the Isles to pull even early in the third period, but hung on until Evgeny Kuznetsov scored this terrific goal that turned out to be the deciding marker for both the game and the series:
The Islanders got a tremendous showing from veteran Jaroslav Halak in net, but their injury-depleted lineup (which was without defensemen Lubomir Visnovsky, Calvin de Haan and Travis Hamonic) couldn't keep the Capitals at bay all night, and their offense couldn't get much of anything going in the area of Washington goalie Braden Holtby. Indeed, the Islanders managed just 11 shots on net all night, including only four in the final frame. The Caps had 11 shots in the first period (and finished with 26). The supporting cast that had taken the pressure off of superstar John Tavares in the Isles' wins in this series were silent – defenseman Johnny Boychuk led the team with five shots on net, and nobody other than Frans Nielsen (who scored their only goal) had more than one shot on net – and Tavares himself didn't have a single shot. It's amazing Halak was able to keep the score as close as he did.
But although Caps fans should be pleased to see their team's first playoff series win since Washington beat Boston in 2011-12, they should be aware the team the Capitals are facing in the second round – the deep, skilled and experienced New York Rangers – will be a far more difficult team to eliminate from post-season play.
The Rangers earned their status as the odds-on favorites to win the Stanley Cup thanks to a lineup with many more weapons on offense than Islanders coach Jack Capuano could employ against the Caps. The Blueshirts' defense is arguably the deepest in the Eastern Conference, if not the entire league. Their star goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, takes up a significantly greater amount of the net than the smaller Halak does. And although the Rangers may not have an individual player with quite the ceiling of a Tavares, they've got a slew of elite forwards who can consistently pressure Holtby and Washington's defense corps in a way the Islanders could not.
The Rangers can also play the Caps any way they want to. If Washington coach Barry Trotz wants to open things up and play a high-risk, high-reward game, the Blueshirts have the offense (their regular-season goals-per-game average of 3.02 was third-best in the league this year) to outscore them. And if Trotz wants to employ a defensive approach, the Rangers can do that, too: all four of their first-round wins against the Penguins came by a 2-1 score (with two of those wins coming in overtime), and Lundqvist is capable of stealing games all on his own.
If Washington is to beat the Rangers, they'll almost certainly need Alex Ovechkin to give them more than the two goals he scored in the first round. They'll need their power play – which was the NHL's best in the regular season at 25.4 percent, but ranked only ninth-best in the first round at 15.4 percent – to be dominant again. They'll need Holtby (who allowed a softie on Nielsen's goal Monday) to be at his absolute best. If they have catastrophic struggles in any of those areas, their next series could end just as quickly as Pittsburgh's did against the Blueshirts.
They Capitals are the underdogs for a reason, and maybe that works in their favor. But they should be under no illusions as to the task ahead. It is mountainous, treacherous and liable to eat them alive if they're not at their very best.