For the second time in three years, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers will be facing off in the first round of the playoffs. The Rangers barely held on to the final spot in the East while the surging Capitals look to avoid further playoff disappointment.
The Capitals lost only three games in the entire month of March, going on a nine game win streak immediately following their February 25th loss to the Rangers. Washington has struggled against the Rangers all year, going 1-2-1 and getting thumped by scores of 6-0 and 7-0.
Although the Rangers have consistently given the Capitals issues in the past (Washington would eventually win their 2009 first round series in seven games after falling behind 3-1) this season’s Caps team has a different feel to it. After playing a very up-tempo, fast paced offense that scored lots of goals but yielded many as well the past few years, the Capitals slowed down and have become a much more defense oriented team.
The acquisitions of Jason Arnott, Marco Sturm and Dennis Wideman have been huge for Washington as well. Arnott brings veteran leadership and a big body to the ice, freeing up Capitals scorers such as Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin. Wideman was a crucial addition, especially after All-Star defenseman Mike Green went down. Wideman missed the last few games of the season and his injury status remains unclear, adding to the team’s blue line injury woes.
Green, who hasn’t played since receiving a concussion against New York in that February loss, is expected to play in game one. The Capitals are also missing defenseman Tom Poti, who has missed the majority of the season with a lower body injury. Though Poti has been skating in practice, the team did not announce whether or not he would be used in the playoffs.
Goals will most likely be at a premium in this series, as the Capitals will be facing off against the league leader in shutouts and a Vezina trophy candidate in Henrik Lundqvist. Lundqvist recorded 11 shutouts this season, with two of those coming against Washington. Lundqvist is 14-10-2 against Washington, including the playoffs. A goaltender like Lundqvist can single handedly swing the momentum of a series; if he gets hot, the Caps could be in trouble.
There is still a question mark as to who the starter for the Capitals will be. Although rookie Michal Neuvirth played the majority of the games during Washington’s March run while Semyon Varlamov nursed a lower body injury, the team has started working Varlamov back into the lineup. Neuvirth has done more than his fair share this season to prove that he belongs with the big boys, but Varlamov’s playoff experience (however brief) would seemingly give him the edge.
Washington will need its big guns to come through in the playoffs. Ovechkin, Semin, Nick Backstrom and Green will all need to play efficiently and effectively if the Caps are going to advance. New York plays blue collar hockey, and the series will be grueling. Washington will need to come out intense from the get go every game, something they struggled to do consistently this season.
Rookie Marcus Johansson will get his first taste of playoff hockey, and the team will need him to continue to play as strongly as he has for the past month and a half. The team will be looking for another rookie, defenseman John Carlson, to help lead a depleted blue line. Carlson will not win rookie of the year, but his contributions to the Capitals have been immense. He tied the franchise mark for most points in a season by a rookie defenseman as well as finishing third in plus/minus amongst rookies.
The Capitals have their work cut out for them in the first round again this year. The pressure for this team to advance deep in the playoffs grows every year and will continue to until they can prove they are ready to be taken seriously as a team that brings it in the playoffs as well as the regular season. Cracking Lundqvist, creating traffic in front of him and crashing the net will be the key for team. Everyone is going to have step up on the defensive end as well; regardless of who is playing in net the team will get strong goaltending as long as they can eliminate turnovers in the neutral zone, stay off the penalty kill and keep the lanes in front of their goalie clear.
One more thing, this is Ovechkin’s time to shine. With Sidney Crosby looking like a no go for the playoffs, this is OV’s time to put himself back on top of the hockey world. After a slow start and an off season (for him) Ovechkin looks to be back to his normal self. Washington needs him to be better than ever.