The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!
Last year when we wrote the warm-up for the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series between the Washington Capitals and the Boston Bruins, we opened with this paragraph…
“On Thursday the Washington Capitals will embark on their 23rd post-season journey with the aim of winning a Stanley Cup. This year marks the fifth consecutive trip to the playoffs for the Caps and if anything, this one resembles the first one in this five-year run more than the others.”
Well, it worked last year, and but for the fact that this is the 24th post-season journey for this franchise (the old television series “Lost” comes to mind) and their sixth consecutive trip to the playoffs, the paragraph still fits, right down to this year resembling the first one more than any of the others.
Oh, and there is a different opponent, too. Well…not so different. This will be the fourth time in five seasons that the Capitals will face off against the New York Rangers in a post-season series. Some things don’t change…well, much.
The View from 30,000 feet
Last year, when these teams met in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, they resembled one another as teams that tended to grind out wins. The Rangers did it with an aggressive pursuit style, while the Caps did it by minimizing risks. Either way, they were close-to-the-margin teams for which blowouts were a rare commodity.
This year, things are different. The Capitals and Rangers are a contrast in styles, or at least a contrast in production, as their respective numbers would indicate:
Looking at the top-end numbers, the Rangers look a lot like last year’s team:
- Goals for/game – 2012: 2.71 / 2013: 2.62
- Goals against/game – 2012: 2.22 / 2013: 2.25
- 5-on-5 – 2012: 1.14 / 2013: 1.30
- Power play – 2012: 15.7% / 2013: 15.7%
- Penalty killing – 2012: 86.2% / 2013: 81.1%
- Winning when scoring first (pct) – 2012: .814 / 2013: .857
If anything this year’s Rangers are a weaker road team that scores less away from Madison Square Garden (2.17 G/G vs. 2.66 last season), is scored upon more (2.46 / 2.34), has a weaker power play (11.4 percent / 15.7 percent), and has a worse penalty kill (75.0 percent / 87.3 percent).
The bigger changes are on the Capitals’ side. They averaged almost half a goal more per game from last year to this (from 2.66 to 3.04), actually had a slight drop in scoring defense (from 2.76 to 2.71), had a marginally better 5-on-5 ratio (1.01 to 1.07), a much more efficient power play (from 16.7 percent to 26.8 percent), and had a much better record when falling behind first (.326 winning percentage to .455). Those differences to the better hold up in both the Caps’ home and road records, as opposed to the Rangers, who have been a weak road club this year.
Even with the addition of Rick Nash this season, this is a team that was offensively challenged for much of the season, especially on the road. The Blueshirts were held to fewer than two goals in 11 of 24 road games. The good news here is that only two of those games took place after March 14th.
The Rangers don’t have top-heavy scoring in their lineup as much as they do not have top-end scoring. Derek Stepan led the club in points (44), but was only tied for 21st in the league in scoring. Rick Nash was close behind with 42 points (tied for 27th), but after that the scoring drops off quickly. Only six Rangers who spent the entire year with the club are in double digits in points. Five are in double digits in goals, but after that the goal scoring drops off a cliff to Taylor Pyatt with six and then to defensemen Ryan McDonagh and Anton Stralman with four apiece. And, just as the Rangers struggle to score on the road, so is that fact reflected in individual performance. Only five Rangers who started the season with the club have more than two goals on the road.
If there is a silver lining in this for the Rangers, it is that they have a very strong finishing kick in games. They were eighth overall in third period goals scored this season (46). But even here that silver lining is not all that thick. Five of the other seven playoff teams in the East have scored even more third period goals than the Rangers.
For the Caps, their offense resembled more the offense of the 2008-2009 season (3.27 goals per game) if not the 2009-2010 juggernaut (3.83 goals per game). Their 3.04 goals per game tied Montreal for fourth in the league in scoring offense. And like the Rangers, the Caps’ offense improved as games went on, only more so and earlier in those contests. Their 56 second period goals led the league (with Winnipeg), and their 48 third period goals were fourth in the league.
As individuals the Caps resembled that 2009-2010 in the distribution of goals, certainly. Alex Ovechkin was the dominant goal scorer (0.71 goals/game in 2009-2010, 0.67 goals/game this year), but he had good support from another winger (Alexander Semin (0.55) in 2009-2010, and Troy Brouwer (0.40) this season) as well as a center (Nicklas Backstrom then (0.27) and Mike Ribeiro now (0.27).
And just as with that 2008-2009 team, the Caps had balance. There were 21 players on a pace to score in double digits in points over an 82-game schedule, while on this team there were 19 (20 if you count Brooks Laich but he played in only nine games this season).
The Rangers are not an especially gifted team at holding teams without shots on goal. The finished the season tied with the Islanders for the tenth lowest average shots on goal (28.2), although that number is tied for the second lowest among the eight playoff clubs in the East. What the Rangers do seem to have a knack for is in avoiding big periods, at least as their overall scoring defense is concerned. With 34 goals allowed in the first periods of games, 38 in the second periods, and 34 in the third periods of games, the Rangers don’t express any clear weaknesses or tendencies to either slow starts or weak finishes. If there is a concern, it is in falling behind early. No team in the Eastern Conference playoffs allowed the first goal of games more often than the Rangers (27 times in 48 games).
The Caps suffer a similar problem to that of the Rangers allowing first goals. Only Colorado (23) and Florida (28) have trailed at the first intermission more often than the Caps (20). Fortunately, the Caps had all those second period goals scored to negate that disadvantage, but this is not necessarily something to count on in the post season. Then there is the continuing issue of shots allowed. Only Edmonton and Buffalo allowed more shots on goal this season. Here is where that matters. If Henrik Lundqvist, who had a .926 save percentage in the regular season, duplicates that in this series, then Braden Holtby has to have a save percentage of .935 just to stay even in goals allowed.
The Rangers are a Jekyll and Hyde act on their special teams. Their power play, while not elite, is competent at home (19.3 percent, 17th in the league), but on the road it struggles to say the least. No team scored fewer power play goals on the road than did New York this season (eight, tied with Winnipeg), and the Rangers have the 28th rated road power play.
New York’s penalty killing shows similar profiles at home and on the road. At home the Rangers are a tenth-best 86.2 percent and had to use it often, finishing with the tenth highest number of shorthanded situations faced at home (80, tied with Ottawa). On the road, however, the Rangers rank 26th with a 75.0 percent penalty kill rate. What saved them was an uncommon discipline about taking penalties in the first place. Only Minnesota found themselves in fewer shorthanded situations on the road this season.
For the Caps, the power play is their signature strength – first at home among playoff teams (27.2 percent), first on the road (26.5 percent), first overall (26.8 percent). At first blush it might look bad that the Caps finished only 14th in total power play opportunities (164), but if they finished tied with New Jersey for third most opportunities (176), the difference would amount to three power play goals. The differences wouldn’t be significant until the Caps have as many opportunities as Detroit (185) or Montreal (203). Still, putting more pressure on teams to defend power plays at the expense of more 5-on-5 time could not hurt.
Penalty killing for the Caps has been a long slow slog of improvement. After four games it was awful (15-for-24, 62.5 percent). But since then the Caps have kiiled penalties at an 80.6 percent rate. Not elite, perhaps, but it would have ranked the Caps in the middle third of the league rankings. Overall, the Caps have has issues with games in which they have three or more shorthanded situations. In those games the Caps are 13-15-3. When they face two or fewer shorthanded situations they are 14-3-0. The silver lining here is that they did better late in the season in games facing three or more shorthanded situations (5-1-1 in April).
New York – Henrik Lundqvist (season series): 1-0-1, 1.44, .942
Washington -- Braden Holtby (season series): 1-2-0, 2.71, .923
When you have been nominated for the Vezina Trophy as the league’s top goaltender four times in the last seven seasons (winning in 2012) while ranking eighth among active goaltenders in wins, second among active goalies in goals against average, first in save percentage, and sixth in shutouts, you are an elite goalie. That, of course, is the Rangers’ Henrik Lundqvist. This season Lundqvist had his second best career season in goals against average (2.05, seventh in the league) and save percentage (.926, tied for fifth in the league). He has been a bit inconsistent in the season’s final weeks, though. In his last ten appearances Lundqvist had a fine win-loss record (7-3-0) and a fine goals against average (1.98). But his save percentage dropped a bit (.920), and he allowed three or more goals in four of the ten games.
Braden Holtby overcame a start to the season that might have had Caps fans wondering if last spring’s superb effort in the playoffs was a fluke. In his first seven appearances he was 3-4-0, 4.04, .874. But in his last 29 appearances he was 20-8-1, 2.26, .930, with four shutouts. Only Tuukka Rask of Boston, among playoff goalies in the East, had more shutouts (five). Among goalies appearing in at least half of their teams’ games, Holtby finished eighth in even-strength save percentage and his save percentage against opponents’ power plays was indistinguishable (.860) from that of his opponent in this series, Henrik Lundqvist (.861).
John Tortorella ended a number of bad personal trends when his Rangers overcame the Caps last spring. Since winning a Stanley Cup at Tampa Bay in 2003 he had an 11-19 post-season record and put together consecutive series wins (beating Ottawa in the first round before ousting the Caps) for the first time since that Stanley Cup year. This is his fourth trip to the post-season with the Rangers, but it will be his fourth time facing the Caps, including once as head coach in Tampa. He is 12-13 overall in wins and losses against the Caps and has split four series against Washington. This series is seen in many quarters as critical to his continued employment in New York. One thing to count on, it probably won’t affect his style. He is the personification of the Sinatra refrain, he does it “myyyyy way,” even if it means antagonizing the local media in Manhattan.
Adam Oates is in his first playoff as a head coach, but it is not as if he is a stranger to being behind the bench in the playoffs, having served as an assistant to Pete DeBoer in New Jersey when the Devils went to the Stanley Cup finals last season. He also understands the pressure of the playoffs as a player, having appeared in 163 playoff games over a 19-year playing career.
If there is a difference between these coaches it would seem to be on where they occupy themselves on the motivator-technician spectrum. Tortorella impresses as more of a motivator, getting his players to expend the maximum effort available to them, more than he seems to be an X’s and O’s coach. Oates, on the other hand, appears more a data-driven driven coach that uses technology and adjustments on the fly based on his accumulation of information than the “rah-rah” type. Each suits their team to a point. New York is not particularly deep in skill and depends on its whole being more than the sum of its parts, being willing to push themselves (or be prodded by Tortorella) to give more than 100 percent for 60 minutes of more. The Caps have more high-end skill, but get contributions from the mid-range of their roster because Oates can make adjustments to maximize the skills those players have.
The Season Series
The Rangers won the season series. Here are the wrap-ups to bring you up to speed:
- February 17: Rangers 2 - Capitals 1
- March 10: Rangers 4 – Capitals 1
- March 24: Capitals 3 – Rangers 2 (OT/SO)
Stars Who Must be Stars
New York: Rick Nash
This is what the Rangers paid a king’s ransom for (Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Tim Erixon, a first round draft pick and future considerations) to employ the services of Rick Nash – the post-season. Nash has appeared in only one playoff series in nine seasons preceding this one, and it did not end well. His 2009 Columbus Blue Jackets were swept in four games by the Detroit Red Wings. Nash was 1-2-3, minus-4 in the four games. And that makes Nash something of an unknown quantity. At first blush it would seem that Nash, who has a 7-8-15 scoring line in 12 career games against the Caps, could dominate. True, he could. But on the other hand he had more shorthanded responsibility in Columbus than he has in new York (only 31 seconds of penalty killing time per game this season), and taking that away from his Columbus production against the Caps he is a more mortal 6-6-12 in those 12 games. Whether he does the “Monster Nash” on the Caps or is more “Rickey Mouse” could be an important factor on which this series turns.
Washington: Alex Ovechkin
It is getting late in the day for Alex Ovechkin to be more than a numbers freak in the post season. He is 30-29-59, plus-56 in 51 career playoff games, but his Caps are just 24-27 in eight playoff series in which Washington has only three series wins. He is 9-8-17, plus-2, in 19 career playoff games against New York having scored three goals in each of the three series in which he faced the Rangers. This season started poorly for Ovechkin, but he closed with a rush. After going 2-1-3, minus-3 in his first eight games he finished 30-23-53, plus-5, in his last 40 games, a 62-47-109, plus-10 pace over 82 games. His 16 power play goals works out to a 27 power play goal scoring rate per 82 games. Only 12 times in the history of the league did anyone score more power play goals in a season. And, if anything he comes into the post-season even hotter – 23 goals in his last 23 games.
Guys Who Might Be Heroes
New York: Derick Brassard
Derick Brassard is another one of those players who is a big question mark. This is his first taste of post-season action, having missed his first chance as a member of the Columbus Blue Jackets in 2009 when he had a shoulder injury. Since arriving in New York with Derek Dorsett and John Moore from Columbus at the trading deadline (with a draft pick for Marian Gaborik and two prospects) Brassard went 5-6-11, plus-3, in 13 games, four of those goals coming in his last six games of the regular season. On a team lacking offensive depth, and not getting all that they might have thought possible from Gaborik, Brassard has been a plus. If he carries that into this series, it spells trouble for the Caps.
Washington: Martin Erat
We had it right in Round 1 of last year’s playoffs when we picked Joel Ward in this category (he with the series clinching goal against Boston). This year we go with the new guy. The addition of Martin Erat has not led to a flood of scoring off his stick (1-2-3 in nine games), but his presence shores up a weakness on this team, filling the left wing side on the second line. He provides balance to that line, his intelligence and scoring potential opening things up for Troy Brouwer and giving center Mike Ribeiro more options. Erat has a body of work in the post season – 8-15-23 in 46 playoff games with Nashville – so this will not be new to him. His is the sort of secondary scoring the Caps could use as another threat against Henrik Lundqvist.
In the end…
This is seen by many folks as a series that will be close, although the Rangers appear to be the consensus pick. We wonder if this isn’t “muscle memory” taking over. The Rangers were on a short list of Stanley Cup favorites when the year started, but they struggled to get much traction for long stretches over the course of the abbreviated season. This is not a team that has performed to that anticipated level.
To that, add the fact that this Ranger team is not a lot different than that which defeated the Caps in seven games last spring. But in that series the Caps were within a triple overtime goal in one games and a late penalty in another of ending the Rangers’ season in less than seven games. And the Caps did it with a team that didn’t have a consistent number two center, had a defenseman with a lot of rust, had a first-line center that lost half a season to a concussion, and was led by a coach who made-do with what he had, but took few (if any) chances. The Caps do not suffer those same problems on the eve of this series.
The Rangers have improved as an internal matter, young players (particularly Derek Stepan) getting another full year of experience under their belts. And on balance, Rick Nash is an upgrade over Marian Gaborik. They will, however, miss defenseman Marc Staal for any additional time he might miss recovering from an eye injury. For the most part, the Rangers will be relying on being a better version of the team that faced the Caps last spring, and that team has not yet emerged this season, at least not consistently and not for long stretches.
On the other hand, the Caps are a better version of the 2009 team that beat that Ranger team, mostly for the experience that their core group – Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, and Mike Green – have obtained. They are also a more balanced team than that one, which was the warm-up act for the Greatest Show on Ice that would torment defenses the following year.
This will be a hard-fought series, as have the three been that preceded it. But while this will be no five-game romp for the Caps as it was in 2011, neither will it be the seven-game series that sandwiched that 2011 series.
Capitals in six