The Caps will face the New York Rangers in the first round of the 2008-2009 playoffs that starts this week. On paper, the Caps should dispose of the Rangers in short order. Now it’s time to look at why they will…or won’t.
As much as any series in the first round, this one’s theme will be the irresistible force meeting the immovable object. The Capitals are a top-third ranked team in the offensive statistics and have the fire power to spot a team a lead and come back to win as often as not. On the other hand, the Rangers are a top-third ranked team in the defensive statistics and boast the league’s top penalty killing group. The raw numbers look like this…
If one digs a little deeper into this goop, you can start to see things each team wants to take advantage of, and things they'd like to avoid...
What you find here is that the Caps are a team that starts fast and finishes that way, illustrated by their league's second best first and third period goal scoring. That third period scoring might be something to watch here, given that the chinks in the Rangers' defensive armor seem to appear later in games.
There is also the matter of the Caps being almost a third-of-a-goal a game better than the Rangers at five-on-five. This appears to be a reflection of the Rangers' overall lack of offensive depth and the Caps ability -- even willingness -- to trade haymakers with teams. The Caps have more weapons for that sort of a contest. How the Rangers deal with that -- or how the officials do (more on that in a bit) -- will be a significant factor in this series.
Now, if you read the collective hockey punditry, you will find a common theme, that being that you can throw these numbers out, that with the addition of Sean Avery, Nik Antropov, and Derek Morris – none of whom have played against the Caps this year while wearing a Ranger jersey – plus the fact that John Tortorella (not Tom Renney) coaches this team now, the Rangers are a different team. In a sense, they’d better be, since the Caps won seven of a possible eight standings points in the head to head competition, and the Rangers won no games in the “hockey” portion of the series (winning their only point by virtue of coming out on top in the Gimmick in the last meeting of the teams, on February 11th).
But are the Rangers a different team after all those changes? The dividing line we might look at to answer that question is the trading deadline, since it is at that point that the Rangers had all the new ingredients – coach and players – in place to effect this supposed phoenix-like transformation. Here is how the Rangers break down, before and after…
Clearly, the Rangers performed better after the additions, not so much on special teams, where their efficiency didn’t change appreciably, but in 5-on-5 play. They scored more and allowed fewer goals. But we have a suspicion that in an odd way, that will mean that this series will turn on special teams. Bear with us.
Even with the improvements, the Rangers are not an especially fearsome team at 5-on-5 play. So, for the Rangers, the object might be to “shorten” the game – play fewer minutes at 5-on-5, let the superior penalty killing unit frustrate the opponent, and/or score on the power play by virtue of getting more chances.
With that in mind, here is the single number you might keep in mind when watching this series…
Look at that second table above, the one that includes a reference to the teams' record when receiving five or more power plays/PK situations a game. When the Rangers received five or more power plays this year, they compiled a record of 24-8-1. Even when having to kill off five or more penalties, they had a .500-plus record (13-10-2). And when the Rangers were in a tightly-called game all around – five or more power plays for both teams – they were 9-3-0 (although three wins came via the Gimmick). If this series turns into a march to the penalty box, it will not be good news for the Caps, especially given that the Caps averaged just over five minor penalties taken per game for the season.
A tightly called series for both teams is a high risk proposition for the Rangers, given the effectiveness displayed by the Caps on the power play this year – at 25.2 percent, they were second in the league to Detroit. That means that for all the attention being paid to who is in the Capitals’ net, the Rangers’ only chance to win this series, it would seem, is for Henrik Lundqvist to keep the Caps at bay until the Rangers can generate just enough opportunities to scratch out a goal or two.
And again, for all the pixels and ink being devoted to how inconsistent Capitals’ goalie Jose Theodore is, there is a curious history about Lundqvist in the playoffs. Namely, he hasn’t been that good, at least not as good as one might expect a three-time Vezina finalist to be. In 23 career playoff appearances, Lundqvist is 11-12, 2.57, .907, all numbers being significantly inferior to his career regular season record. Seven times in those 23 career playoff appearances he has allowed four or more goals, including three times in his last eight outings in last year’s playoffs.
If there is something in the Rangers’ season record that could cause concern among Caps fans, it is in their ability to frustrate offensively gifted teams. Of the top five goal-scoring teams in the NHL this season, the Rangers have a record of 9-6-2. They have a .500-or-better record (based on points earned) against four of those teams. The one team they do not have a .500 record against – the Caps (1-2-1).
How the Rangers will win
Stan Fischler’s faith in the Rangers’ offense delivering aside, the Rangers have to keep games from getting past six goals combined for the teams. If games get to seven, eight, nine goals, chances are the Rangers aren’t going to be on the long end of them. They don’t have enough weapons to consistently win high-scoring games.
The Rangers’ realm is the one-goal game. No team still playing in the East has played in more one-goal games than have the Rangers (43). Only New Jersey among playoff teams in the East has more one-goal wins in the regular season. On the other hand, no team in the East played fewer one-goal games in the regular season than the Caps (34), although the Caps’ winning percentage is virtually identical to that of the Rangers (.559 to .558). The Rangers need to win games 2-1 and 3-2. They won’t win games, 5-4 or 6-5.
You’d like to think Scott Gomez and Chris Drury are going to show up for the Rangers. Their respective playoff pedigrees suggest that they will. But that isn’t likely to be enough. The Rangers need Nikolai Zherdev and Nik Antropov to show up, too. The problem is, Antropov has a grand total of five points in 28 career playoff games, and Zherdev is making his first playoff appearance.
The wild card – literally – is Sean Avery. There is perhaps no player in the NHL who has such an outsized reputation as a game changer relative to his actual production. But that’s the problem, too. That reputation, which centers mostly on his antics directed toward opponents, disguises a resume that suggests a productive player. He had 22 points in 41 games this year, 12 in 18 games for the Rangers. That’s not a total that will impress folks who watch the Caps treat the scoreboard like a pinball machine, but 0.67 points/game for the Blueshirts is better than Markus Naslund or Brandon Dubinsky put up this year, too. Avery’s ability to contribute within the rules can’t be overlooked.
How the Caps will win
What the Caps are going to want to do is make this “Showtime” in the NHL sense. The Rangers had the worst winning percentage of any of the remaining 16 teams in games decided by three or more goals (8-14, .364). This is the fault line upon which this series will be decided – the ability of the Caps to impose a fast-break style on the Rangers, pounding them with their superior offensive depth, or the Rangers making this a war of attrition, shortening the game by virtue of their suffocating penalty kill and goaltending.
The constants for the Caps are Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom. Ovechkin has had consecutive games without a point only twice this year, and none since early January. Backstrom endured a four-game streak without a point in late January, but since then has registered at least one point in 27 of 33 games. Then there is Mike Green, who in the last two years has gone 5-3-8, +6 in seven games against the Rangers.
The wild cards are Alexander Semin and Brooks Laich. While Semin has matured as a player, he is still given to bouts of inconsistency. But in his last 22 games to close the regular season, he was 13-16-29 with three game-winning goals. If that Alexander Semin shows up – the one of sublime talent who, when he is on, is the most gifted offensive talent on this team – this will be a short series. For Brooks Laich, it is not likely to be so much a matter of talent as will. When Laich is rooting around the crease for a puck like a pig after a truffle, he is the perfect complement to the other talent on this team. In his last 16 games, Laich was 8-9-17. Maybe for the duration, that should be our nickname for him – “Truffles.”
Like most playoff series, we think this will turn on goaltending. The hockey “market,” in a sense, has already factored in the alleged inconsistency of Jose Theodore and has tagged the Caps as the most vulnerable favorite in the first round. Our suspicions are about Lundqvist, who has had more problems in playoff settings than one might expect.
The Rangers won’t score enough to keep them alive into a second round, and Lundqvist doesn’t have four sub-three goal games in him.
Caps in five