Having fought through a grueling seven-game series against a powerhouse team loaded to the gills with defensive and goaltending talent, the Washington Capitals find themselves facing almost the same combination of strengths in the second round.
Like Boston, New York has one of the best goaltenders in the game. Like Boston, New York has a formidable defensive corps. Like Boston, New York dominated the Eastern Conference in the regular season.
Having done the improbable once, can the Capitals repeat the feat?
New York Offense vs. Washington Defense
New York Rangers Offense: +2.8 GVT (12th in the NHL)
Washington Capitals Defense: -4.0 GVT (18th in the NHL)
Washington Capitals Goaltending: -3.8 GVT (20th in the NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, +10.6 GVT
Of the NHL's 30 leading playoff scorers through the first round, just oneBrad Richardscomes from the New York Rangers, despite the Rangers having played a seven-game series while many other teams wrapped up there's in five or six games. Marian Gaborik's performance was especially disappointingjust a single goal and three points over the course of the series. Gaborik's easily the team's best offensive option and the team will not go deep in the playoffs unless he can lead the way.
The Caps' defense in the first round was somewhat suspectKarl Alzner and John Carlson did a good job given their difficult assignments, while Roman Hamrlik also had a strong series, but Mike Green's still not back to his usual self and the Wideman plus other guy pairing was lost at sea. Braden Holtby did admirable work in net but it's hard to imagine he'll be able to sustain that level of play over the long haul.
Advantage: New York Rangers
Washington Offense vs. New York Defense
Washington Capitals Offense: -0.2 GVT (14th in the NHL)
New York Rangers Defense: +20.1 GVT (3rd in the NHL)
New York Rangers Goaltending: +17.0 GVT (5th in the NHL)
Total: Washington Capitals, -37.3 GVT
The Capitals have some offensive talentin particular Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Nicklas Backstrombut the team struggled to score this season as players suffered through down years and the power play failed to click. Ovechkin picked up five points to lead the team in overall playoff scoring, while Semin led the club in goals with three, but the perception remains that both are capable of more.
Goals weren't easy to come by against Boston, and they aren't going to get any more readily available against the Rangers. In net, Henrik Lundqvist is one of the league's undisputedly elite goaltending talents, a Hart Trophy finalist this season, and a guy who can win a series almost by himself. On defense, the Girardi/McDonagh pairing is as pure a shutdown tandem as exists in the league today and Marc Staal's a well-above average anchor for the second unit. Anton Stralman isn't a world-beater but John Tortorella has carefully deployed him in offensive situations and he's done well so far as a third-pairing option in the postseason.
Advantage: New York Rangers, by a lot
New York Power Play vs. Washington Penalty Kill
New York Rangers Power Play: -2.1 GVT (20th in the NHL)
Washington Capitals Penalty Kill: -6.0 GVT (21st in the NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, +3.9 GVT
The Ranger's middle-of-the-pack power play had a vanilla first round against the Senators, and the reasonable expectation would likely be for it to keep ticking along at its middling pace. Of course, the Bruins had a middling power play in the regular season too, and ended up looking rather helpless with the man advantage against Washington.
Have the Capitals really turned a corner, or did the short series against a middling power play team make them look better than they really are?
Advantage: New York Rangers
Washington Power Play vs. New York Penalty Kill
Washington Capitals Power Play: -5.8 GVT (23rd in the NHL)
New York Rangers Penalty Kill: +11.1 GVT (7th in the NHL)
Total: Washington Capitals, -5.3 GVT
Washington's toothless regular season power play followed them to the playoffs, while the Rangers' potent penalty kill managed the same feat. For all of the Capitals' marquee offensive talent, they haven't been a really strong power play team in the last two seasons.
Advantage: New York Rangers
Season Series Results
These clubs met four times over the course of the regular season, with each team winning in regulation, and each team going one-and-one in their own building. Washington picked up matching 4-1 wins over New York in December and April, while the Rangers beat the Capitals 6-3 in November and 3-2 in February. Totals goal differential in the series was 13-11 in favor of Washington.
Advantage: Washington Capitals, by a hair
Injuries and Intangibles
The Capitals have been plagued by goaltending injuries in the postseason, but the club's third-string goaltender, Braden Holtby, put in an admirable performance to get them through their first round series against Boston. Michal Neuvirth was Holtby's backup in Game Seven, and presumably is now well enough to play if called upon. Tomas Vokoun remains sidelined with a groin injury.
Brian Boyle suffered a concussion in the Rangers' series against Washington, while defenseman Michael Sauer remains on the shelf with the same concussion that's kept him off the ice since December.
Washington has already snuck by one first round defensive titan, beating the Bruins in seven games thanks primarily to high-end goaltending, a good penalty kill, and a bit of luck. Every game in the series was decided by a single goal, and four of those contests went to overtime. It was as close a series as we've seen in these playoffs. They also have some offensive firepower that could yet break out.
Even so, asking them to slay another Eastern Conference giant is probably asking too much. The Rangers' defense and goaltending is a formidable challenge, while despite Braden Holtby's excellent work he remains much less of a sure thing. Then too in Marian Gaborik the Rangers have their own underperforming scoring star who could emerge as a difference maker in the second round. The bottom line is that New York is the superior team.
Prediction: Rangers in five games
Jonathan Willis is an author of Hockey Prospectus.
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