Well, the view is nicer from up here in the second round, even if it isn’t new.
The Washington Capitals defied the prognostications of so-called experts (yours truly excepted) to advance to the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals where they will meet a familiar adversary – the New York Rangers (cue the low, ominous baritone of Wes Johnson… “the Noooo Yo-o-o-o-ork Ran-n-n-n-gers).
Yup, the Blueshirts again for the third time in four years. The difference this time is that roles are reversed. Instead of the Caps facing the Rangers as a two-versus-seven or one-versus-eight seed, the Caps are the ones looking up as a seven-versus-one seed in the second round.
Only twice in franchise history have the Caps entered the playoffs coming off a seventh-place finish in the Eastern Conference, and only once did they do so and advance to the second round. They did that in 1994… against the Rangers. It did not go well.
In 1994 the Rangers has players such as Mark Messier, Adam Graves, Brian Leetch, Alex Kovalev, and Mike Gartner (ok, they traded him to Toronto for Glenn Anderson, another name you might recognize). They had Mike Richter in goal. The Caps? Well, they had Mike Ridley, Dmitri Khristich, Michal Pivonka, and Randy Burridge (oh, and a young Peter Bondra). They had Don Beaupre in goal. Nice players, but with the exception of Bondra, do you seen anyone close to being a hall of famer in there?
The results were predictable. The Rangers won the first three games by a combined score of 14-5 and coasted to a five-game series win – a speed bump on their road to a Stanley Cup.
But there is that whole familiarity thing of more recent vintage. The Caps own an 8-4 record against New York in the last two meetings of these teams in the playoffs, a 4-3 series win in 2009 and a 4-2 series win last spring. In doing so, they outscored the Rangers by a 32-19 margin in the 12 games and shut them out three times.
The View from 30,000 feet
(click pics for larger images)
The Rangers are not as offensively-challenged as they might have been when entering the playoffs in 2009 (28th in goals per game) or 2011 (14th), but this is not a juggernaut, either (11th this past regular season). However, they seem to have picked a bad time to channel their inner offensive demons. In the first round the Rangers managed only 14 goals (2.00 per game) and scored more than three only once, in Game 1, against the Ottawa Senators, a team that finished 24th in the regular season in goals allowed per game.
One problem for the Rangers has been getting started in the first place. They were 26th in the league during the regular season in first period goals scored and managed only four such goals in the seven games of the opening round against Ottawa. Only four teams scored fewer, including Ottawa, and three of them played only five games.
The Rangers also have suffered a lack of secondary scoring. They got no goals from Artem Anisimov, Ruslan Fedotenko, Brandon Dubinsky, or Carl Hagelin (when he wasn’t suspended) in the first round. Their primary scoring wasn’t that productive, either. Marian Gaborik had but one goal in seven games, that coming in Game 1 against the Senators. The total effect is that the Rangers have the worst shooting percentage of any team advancing to the second round (6.7 percent).
On the other hand, the Capitals were hardly burning out bulbs on the scoreboard in the first round, either. They scored 16 goals against the Boston Bruins. If the Capitals’ offense was geography, it would look like the South Pacific Ocean – little dots of land representing goals on an ocean of minutes. Only twice in 21 regulation periods of hockey did the Caps manage as many as two goals in a period, both coming in their 4-3 win in Boston in Game 5 (periods two and three).
The Caps have had the blessing of a certain sort of “balance” in their playoff scoring – 12 players account for the 16 goals. But the other side of that coin is that there have been no flurries from the players you might expect them from. Alexander Semin has three goals, a respectable total for seven games, but Alex Ovechkin has two (both in losses), and his Core Four running mates Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green have one apiece.
The Caps problems have been reflected in a manner different from the Rangers. Where the Rangers have a hard time getting started, the Caps had a hard time reaching any level of sustainable production on a period to period basis. Their scoring by period was four goals in the first period, six in the second, four in the third, and two in overtime. The effect of all of this is that the Caps finished sixth among the eight second round contestants with a 7.7 percent shooting percentage.
If the offenses were unproductive in the first round, then it only makes sense that the defenses for these teams were quite capable. Otherwise, we’re not writing this wordy tome. And they were.
The Rangers held the Ottawa Senators to a measly 13 goals and never allowed more than two goals in regulation in the seven-game series. Part of it was holding the Senators to a manageable number of shots (29.7/game; fifth fewest among the second round teams). Part of it was holding the big scorers away from shots on goal. Part of it was making sure guys who should score didn’t get the chance. For instance, Jason Spezza had a hand in five of the Senators’ 13 goals for the series (38.5 percent), not altogether different from his regular season mark (34.6 percent). Same for Daniel Alfredsson (24.3 percent in the regular season and 25.0 percent of the goals scored by Ottawa in the four games in which he played). But Erik Karlsson? He was in on 32.1 percent of the Senators’ goals in the regular season, only 7.7 percent (one goal) against the Rangers. Milan Michalek – 24.7 percent of Ottawa goals in the regular season, only 15.4 percent (a goal and an assist). The Rangers get good goaltending, and we will get to that, but they do a good job limiting occasions of pucks getting to their net by dangerous players, too.
The Caps held the defending Stanley Cup champions – a team that averaged 3.17 goals per game in the regular season (tied for second) – to 15 goals in seven games (2.14 a game). They held the Bruins to a shooting percentage of 6.1 percent in the seven-game series win, when Boston came into the series with a 9.8 percent shooting percentage for the season. Part of that was the unexpected goaltending of Braden Holtby, but much of it was a relentless effort in keeping the Bruins on the perimeter, denying them the opportunity to pack forwards in close to hammer away at rebounds or deflect shots. Nothing illustrates the concept like the shot chart from Game 7:
Only six of 32 shots were taken from the “home plate” high opportunity scoring area. Rare is the team that can get that few close-in looks at the net and find the back of it with any frequency. The Caps ability to sustain this kind of frustrating long-range look at their net relives young Holtby of the responsibility for making big saves or from having to repel flurries of shots.
But the Caps are going to have to deal with a problem that they managed to dodge in Round 1. That would be the third defense pairing. John Carlson and Karl Alzner were not efficient, at least as measured by their Corsi On-Ice numbers at five-on-five, but they were effective – four goals scored against while on ice in an average of 143:03 in ice time at even strength between them for the series. Mike Green (three goals against on ice) and Roman Hamrlik (four) seem to have developed an easy chemistry between them. But Dennis Wideman was on ice for eight of the 12 even strength goals scored by the Bruins, and his partner was not a given, either. Jeff Schultz was his partner for four games (on ice for four goals against), John Erskine for the other three (three goals against on ice). This is the soft underbelly of the defense, and the series could turn on whether the Caps can hide this problem or if Dennis Wideman becomes more effective in his own end of the ice on a more consistent basis.
The Rangers solved Ottawa for five power play goals in 32 opportunities – 15.63 percent. For the regular season they were 44-for-280 – 15.71 percent. They have been nothing if not consistent. But what has been striking in the Rangers’ post season is that volume counts. Twice they were awarded seven power plays in their first-round series against Ottawa, and on both occasions scored twice with the man advantage. In the other five games they had four or fewer power play chances and were a combined 1-for-18. What might be most surprising is that Anton Stralman, who had no power play goals and only four power play assists in 53 regular season games, has two power play goals and an assist among the five Ranger power play goals so far. Is that sustainable, and if not, does Marian Gaborik get untracked (no power play goals in more than 35 minutes of power play ice time in the opening round)?
On the penalty kill the Rangers were reasonably effective in the Ottawa series (84.6 percent), but they have allowed power play goals in each of the last two games in a total of seven opportunities for the Senators. Three of the four power play goals they allowed in the series either tied games of gave the Senators the lead. And the other – by Daniel Alfredsson in Game 7 – came barely two minutes after the Rangers took a 2-0 lead. None of these goals were window dressing.
For the Caps, the issue was less efficiency (15.8 percent in the Boston series, eighth among the 16 teams) than effectiveness (they had only 19 opportunities in seven games – no team had fewer opportunities per game). This has been an issue all season; only three teams had fewer power play opportunities in the regular season. They were “out-opportunitied” in five of the seven games against Boston in the opening round (including all three losses). They were not appreciably more successful against the Rangers in drawing opportunities, making their 2-for-11 mark in four games look decent enough (18.2 percent), but not especially effective.
On the penalty kill, the Caps were very efficient in the Boston series – 91.2 percent on 21-for-23 (second among the 16 playoff teams). What contributed to the efficiency was the Caps’ ability to limit shots. Boston had only 27 shots in almost 42 minutes of power play time for the series. It was part of an inside-out defensive approach that kept the Bruins to the outside. If they can repeat this performance against the Rangers, the New Yorkers have not displayed the sort of consistency of success on the power play to suggest they will be any more successful against Washington than the Bruins were.
The Season Series
Game 1: November 25th, Rangers 6 – @Capitals 3
This game gave no early indications it would be either high-scoring or a blow-out. The teams split 16 shots in the first period, none of them finding the back of the net. The close, low-scoring game dissolved under a barrage of Ranger goals early in the second period. Three Ranger goals in a space of 4:22 let the Rangers pull away, or so one might have thought. Troy Brouwer scored 58 seconds after the third Ranger goal, and John Carlson scored on a power play four minutes later to get the Caps within a goal. But Brian Boyle scored when Michal Neuvirth fumble a puck out of his glove with 3:11 left in the period to provide some breathing room Brad Richards scored early in the third to restore the Rangers’ three goal lead. Alex Ovechkin and Ruslan Fedotenko provided some window dressing for the final score. The Caps were held to 21 shots. Bruce Boudreau was relieved of his coaching duties a few days later.
December 28th: Game 2: @Washington 4 – Rangers 1
The Caps and Rangers exchanged first period goals, but mid-way through the second John Carlson dipped low to keep a puck from exiting the offensive zone, regained his stance and fired a shot at the Ranger net that Troy Brouwer redirected past goalie Martin Biron to give the Caps a 2-1 lead that they would not relinquish. Alexander Semin added a pair of goals, while Tomas Vokoun stopped 21 of 32 shots.
Game 3: February 12th, @Rangers 3 – Capitals 2
This one was the Ryan and Ryan show for the Rangers. Ryans Callahan and McDonagh sandwiched a goal by Alexander Semin to give the Rangers a 2-1 lead through two periods. Brandon Prust scored what would be the game-winning goal in the seventh minute of the third period, converting pass a 2-on-1 shorthanded rush from Brandon Dubinsky. John Carlson got the Caps within a goal with under three minutes left, but the Caps would get no closer.
Game 4: April 7th, Capitals 4 - @Rangers 1
In the season finale at Madison Square Garden, the Caps made an early statement in this one. Alex Ovechkin scored 32 seconds into the first period, and Mathieu Perreault potted one less than two minutes later. John Carlson scored on a late power play to give the Caps a 3-0 lead after 20 minutes. The teams exchanged goals in the second period, the Caps getting theirs from Nicklas Backstrom, his first since missing 40 games from a concussion. Braden Holtby stopped 35 of 36 shots for the win in which the Caps registered only 17 shots of their own.
Washington: 16-10-4 against Eastern Conference playoff teams
New York: 20-12-2 against Eastern Conference playoff teams
New York – Henrik Lundqvist (season series): 2-1-0, 3.00, .859; Martin Biron (season series): 0-1-0, 4.01, .826
Washington -- Braden Holtby (season series): 1-0-0, 1.00, .972; Michal Neuvirth: 0-2-0, 4.53, .852; Tomas Vokoun: 1-0-0, 1.00, .969
This is something of an odd matchup. The Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist – a Hart Trophy finalist and duly recognized as one of the top goalies in the game – has been quite mortal against the Caps in his last two playoff series: 4-8, 2.64, .912, with one shutout. That 3.00 goals against average and .859 save percentage during the regular season suggest that the Caps might just be one of those teams that knows where the holes are. On the other hand, there is Braden Hotlby with just two career appearances against the Rangers in which he is 1-0-1, 0.96, .969, his loss coming in a Gimmick decision in January 2011. If one just looked at the names, one might think the Rangers have a distinct advantage. Lundqvist is certainly capable of carrying his team through a series, and his 1.40 GAA and .945 save percentage against Ottawa is evidence of that. And Braden Holby certainly could wake up one morning to find that the coach carrying him through these playoffs so far has turned into a pumpkin. But things are not at cut and dried as one might think just looking at the names.
John Tortorella has a Stanley Cup on his resume. That’s the good part. Since he won that Cup with the Tampa Bay Lightning in 2004, his record is 11-19 (including the game he missed for improper use of a water bottle), the series win over Ottawa being his first since that Stanley Cup final in 2004. His team is certainly a reflection of his style – feisty, offer no quarter, hard working. He is also 0-for-2 in playoff series against the Caps as the Rangers’ bench boss. You can almost see him baring his teeth at the prospect of reversing that record.
Behind the other bench, Dale Hunter now has an NHL playoff series win under his belt. However he is doing it, and at times it is a wonderment (Exhibit 1: Alex Ovechkin’s even strength ice time), he is doing it. The Caps are in some ways an embodiment of his playing style – feisty, offer no quarter, hard working (just without the chippiness, although the Boston Bruins, their media, and their fans might disagree). Neither he nor Tortorella impress us as being big “x’s and o’s” coaches. They seem to be more motivators, Tortorella with an in-your-face style, Hunter by way of example and persuading his team that they can win sacrificing run-and-gun for “mind your P’s and Q’s.”
Stars Who Must be Stars
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
Now we are getting to the nub of it. Ovechkin did not have an impressive series against Boston. In fact, he looked to be a cog instead of the axle around which the Caps turn. Maybe it was a product of ice time, maybe it was a product of his trying to assimilate “Hunter Hockey” into his repertoire. But he is 15-14-29 in 28 career games against the Rangers with six power play goals. In 12 playoff games against the Blueshirts he is 6-7-13. He is going to need to approach those numbers on a per-game basis if the Caps are to move on.
New York: Marian Gaborik
Marian Gaborik has 105 goals in 220 regular season games with the Rangers. He has two goals in 12 playoff games. If that kind of disparity carries over into this series, the Rangers face an uphill climb to advance. He does not have big numbers against the Caps over his career: 7-3-10 in 17 games, one of those goals coming in the 6-3 win over Washington on November 25th. He does not come into this series on much of a hot streak. He scored a goal in Game 1 against Ottawa, but failed to record another on any of his nine shots in the last six games of the series. The number that sticks out there is “nine.” If the Caps hold him to a shot and a half a game in this series, it bodes well for the Caps.
Guys Who Might Be Heroes
Washington: Mike Green
It pays to listen to your Uncle Peerless here. We had this one nailed in Round 1. Now listen up. It might seem odd to see Mike Green here, given his pedigree. But Green has morphed into more of a defensive defenseman. In the Boston series he had one goal in seven games on only 11 shots, a far cry from the guy who had 31 goals in the 2008-2009 season and had consecutive seasons of better than a point a game. But this is “Game Over Green,” too, with five goals and 13 points in 17 career games against New York. Two of those five goals are game-winners. The Caps do not need him to be the Mike Green of 2008-2009, but if they get any little bit more production from him than what he provided in the first round, it could spell doom for the Rangers.
New York: Carl Hagelin
Carl Hagelin, a sixth-round draft pick in 2007, finished seventh among rookies in goal scoring this season. His speed and ability to find the back of the net might spell trouble for the Caps. However, he has not recorded a goal since March 15th (16 games). He has yet to score a goal against Washington (0-1-1 in four games) and is a minus-4. It suggests that the other side of that scoring coin is that he and his linemates can be exploited at the other end of the rink. Does he have the physical stature to be able to compete with larger Washington forwards?
In the end…
The Rangers come into this game as, if not a prohibitive favorite, then a solid one. We’re puzzled as to why. This is a team that has more consistent goaltending than the Boston team the Caps faced in Round 1, but goaltending that has come up short against the Caps in playoffs past. The Rangers do not have the depth or physicality on the blue line that the Bruins brought to the rink, and they do not have the depth of scoring at forward. Further, Brian Boyle, who has been something of an unsung hero against the Caps (5-5-10 in 13 career games against Washington), is of uncertain status after being concussed by a Chris Neil hit last weekend.
The Caps are 2-1 against the Rangers under Dale Hunter, having allowed only five goals in the process. The Rangers could certainly win this series, but it is a reach to think they could do it in short order. Rather, the Caps, who eliminated this team in five games last spring, have the pieces to make this series difficult for the Rangers. And New York is on quite a “meh” streak of their own. They wrapped up the regular season with a 5-4-0 record, four of those wins coming against a succession of tomato cans (Toronto, Minnesota, Winnipeg, and Montreal), then struggled mightily against the Senators in the first round, getting three of their four wins by one goal.
This will be another series in which the Caps are given little chance to move on. But move on they will.
Capitals in six