Once again, I picked both of these teams to lose in the opening round. The Rangers were able to finally finish off the Senators in 7 (I was almost a genius picking the Sens in 7) and the Capitals outlasted the Bruins in 7 games as well. It’s funny, last year I caught some flak for picking the Bruins to lose every series. So this year, I pick them to win…and they lose. Right now I’m going to take this opportunity to make a prediction for next season: The Bruins will finish with an 82-0 record next year.
I did say that the ingredients were there for a Capitals upset, and a lot of that had to do with goalie Braden Holtby. The Bruins did get their fair share of shots, but Holtby stood his ground. And even though there were a lot of shots, the defense chipped in well enough to prevent the Bruins from overwhelming them. Most importantly in that series, the Capitals didn’t allow the Bruins to play the way they wanted. The B’s couldn’t get the space and puck control that makes them dangerous and it allowed the Caps to hang in each game.
Can Washington to do it again? The Rangers play a style more similar to the way the Caps played Boston, so the big question is this: Can the Capitals beat the Rangers at their own game?
The Senators surprised much of the hockey world by taking the Rangers to 7 games. Or did the Rangers surprise people by being taken to 7 games? Either way, it showed that the Rangers are by no means an unstoppable force. Brian Boyle suffered a concussion in the series and led the team with 3 goals despite only playing in 5 games. He’s the type of role player who tends to have a big impact in the playoffs. Can the Rangers replace his presence? Marian Gaborik had a ho-hum series offensively and the Rangers might have issues surviving if Gabby and Brad Richards don’t get the offense going.
Washington has fully embraced the new defensive approach for the playoffs. Roman Hamrlik was absolutely key for the Caps last round and shared the team lead with a +5. He, along with John Carlson and Karl Alzner, will be getting big minutes against the best forwards on the Rangers. And I would love to see coach Dale Hunter roll all four lines pretty consistently so that defense oriented players like Troy Brouwer, Jay Beagle, and Brooks Laich can get a good amount of ice time. You want the top guns like Alex Ovechkin and Alexander Semin on the ice to score you goals, but those will also be the shifts that the Rangers could turn a turnover into a quick goal. On top of that, twelve different players scored at least once for the Caps last round. Deep scoring, especially against a team as tough as the Rangers, wins series.
The Rangers have to get better at winning faceoffs. They took only 45.6% of the draws against the Sens with their leader being Brad Richards (50.45%). Unfortunately, Richards can’t and won’t be out there for every single faceoff and likely won’t be asked to be taking too many defensive draws (Richards doesn’t really get any time on the penalty kill). Someone else is going to have to pick up the slack or else the Rangers are going to find themselves chasing the play.
New York’s bread and butter this season was clogging the defensive zone and capitalizing on mistakes. They don’t need many to make you pay. They are a little more polished than the Caps are in that style of play and there could be a few more odd man rushes going in the Rangers’ favor this series. I can also see Ovechkin and Semin getting frustrated from the lack of space and chances.
I’m not sold on Braden Holtby being the next greatest goalie ever to walk the planet. He has had a great playoffs so far and was a big reason that the Caps advanced. I don’t expect him to fall off to much this round and should get a little bit of a break on shots. And of course, Henrik Lundqvist is going to be very good on the opposite end. For both teams, the best way to beat a goalie like these two guys is to make them not matter at all. Screens, deflections, and traffic in general can render even the best goalies helpless.
My prediction: Rangers in 7. This one is very tough to pick and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Capitals pull this out. I’m just not convinced that the Capitals can beat the Rangers playing their style.