Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!! -- Eastern Conference Quarterfinals: Capitals vs. Rangers

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

Welcome, dear reader, to the first, last, and only prognosticatorial preview you need or want for the first round matchup of the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers. We are here with our crack staff of researchers, analysts, and pundits to bring you every meaningful nugget of information you’ll need when you sit down to worry yourself silly over whether the Washington Capitals can escape the first round of the playoffs for only the ninth time in the 36-year history of the franchise.

What a difference a year – and a pistol-whipping in the first round last year – makes. Last year, we said this about the Caps’ first round series against the Montreal Canadiens:

“There are no sure things when it comes to the Caps, but in the end Montreal is coming into the series with a hope (that they get a lot of power play chances) and a prayer (that [Jaroslav] Halak finds his inner Dryden). It will not be nearly enough against a team with many more weapons.”

Well, Montreal did not get a lot of power play chances (they had 30 in seven games to the Caps’ 33), but Halak did find his inner Dryden to become merely the latest “hot goalie” to send the Caps home frustrated. And that serves as ominous foreshadowing to this series, but we will get to that in a bit. First things first.

The View from 30,000 Feet

The Caps finished with four more wins overall, eight more wins in regulation and overtime, and 14 more standings points than their opponent in this series. If you look at the overall numbers, though, you would wonder how that came to be:

There appears to be little difference between the teams in terms of rankings. Both are middle-third in terms of scoring rankings, both are top-five in preventing goals. Both are efficient, if not especially outstanding in 5-on-5 play. Both have had issues on their respective power plays. If there is a bit of daylight between these teams, the Caps are among the elite penalty killing squads in the NHL this year (how many of you thought I would type THAT sentence this season?), while the Rangers are merely good in that regard.

The Caps have also shown themselves to be the most adept team in the NHL in dealing with adversity, to the extent you measure such a thing as falling behind first. It was the second consecutive season in which the Caps finished first in winning percentage when allowing the first goal, the third straight year in which they finished in the top-five, and the fourth straight in which they finished in the top ten. If there is a smudge on that record that Caps fans might beware of, it is that the Caps have had so many opportunities to polish that record this season. They allowed the first goal 47 times. Only Toronto, Colorado, Edmonton, and the New York Islanders had it happen more often. It should not escape anyone’s notice that none of those teams made the playoffs.

The Rangers, on the other hand are both symmetrical in that regard (scoring the first goal 41 times, allowing the first goal 41 times) and reliable in their outcomes (score first, they win; trail first, they lose…pretty much like most NHL teams).

The takeaway here is that if the Rangers score first, it isn’t a dire situation for the Caps (although the Rangers did score first in three of the four games in the season series). If the season as a whole is a guide, the Rangers might not be as resilient if the Caps score first.

Special Teams

There is a number not included in that table above that would come leaping off the page had it been there:


That is the number of times the New York Rangers have found themselves shorthanded this season, third fewest in the NHL and lowest among all Eastern Conference playoff teams. Compare that with this set of numbers:


That is the Caps’ record in which they score at least one power play goal. This is the fault line on which this series is going to be decided – the Caps ability to get power play opportunities (and the Rangers’ ability to avoid providing them) and convert on those they do get.

These clubs are really almost indistinguishable in other goal scoring/goal prevention respects. In the most common side-versus-side situations, the Caps have scored 185 goals at 5-on-5 and 5-on-4, the Rangers have scored 194. Goals allowed – the Caps have allowed 173 at 5-on-5 and 4-on-5, while the Rangers have allowed 170. So here, the Caps power play versus the Rangers ability to avoid them, is where the differences are stark. The Caps have huge success in games in which they score power play goals, and the Rangers are adept at preventing those opportunities. If you are looking at where this series is going to be won or lost, this is where you might pay closest attention.

The Series

It is tempting to take a look back at the season series to divine nuggets of wisdom with respect to how well these teams match up against one another. But this has been an odd season series, even by Capitals/Rangers standards. For the Caps, it might have been four different seasons instead of four different games.

Game 1, a 5-3 Capitals win on November 9th, might be characterized as “Old Caps” in that the score harkened back to games the Caps played last year of a more high-scoring nature. But it was odd in that two Ranger goals were scored by Brian Boyle (who had never scored more than four in any season previously; he finished with 21 this season) and one by Derek Boogaard, who had last scored a goal when Pangaea broke apart. Brooks Laich had two goals – his only two-goal game of the season. Not a lot to take away from that other than if Brian Boyle is a goal-scoring force in this series, the Caps are in trouble. And if Brooks Laich is a goal-scoring force, Caps fans can think about a second-round opponent.

Game 2, a 7-0 blowout for the Blueshirts on December 12th. Again, you think Brandon Prust, who scored the first goal in that game, is going to be a factor in this series? If he is, well, golf is nice this time of year. That game actually started tame, a 1-0 Ranger lead on Prust’s goal in the first 20 minutes. But then the Rangers got one in the first minute of the second, then two more before the period was five minutes old. Then they got a shorthanded goal…from a defenseman (Marc Staal). The Caps could take solace that it wasn’t Staal’s first shortie of his career. It wasn’t even his first shorthanded this goal this season. That came against Pittsburgh on November 15th. Big deal. Not even Alex Ovechkin swapping fists with Brandon Dubinsky could save this disaster. Oh, and don’t forget, it was caught in living color for the HBO cameras for the 24/7 series, for f**k’s sake (points to those who get the Ovechkin reference there).

At least the Caps held the Rangers to one goal in Game 3. Trouble is, they only got one of their own and couldn’t make it stand up when the Rangers tied things with less than seven minutes left in regulation. Artem Anisimov scored on a trick shot for the Rangers to get the second standings point, but even the silver lining for the Caps – that rookie goalie Braden Holtby allowed only one goal on 29 shots – isn’t a takeaway from that one. Holtby is getting ready to lead the Hershey Bears into the Calder Cup playoffs.

Game 4 was another stinker, a 6-0 blowout on Verizon Center ice. And the goal scorers – Steve Eminger (who might not get a sweater in this playoff series) credited with the game winner, that Boyle fellow again, and Erik Christensen had two (part of a four-point night). Where did the Rangers find these guys? It was also the last game Mike Green played in the regular season, the victim of a hit by Derek Stepan that left him with a concussion or an upper body injury, depending on your choice of news source.

The takeaway from that last game and the series for the Rangers is that the Rangers’ offense is opportunistic. They spread it around, too, with five 20-goal scorers. The problem is that one of them – Ryan Callahan – is out with a broken ankle suffered in typical Ranger fashion, blocking shots. That will leave quite a hole.

The takeaway for the Caps in this series is the last game. It might have been the worst game the Caps played all year (even in the 7-0 loss at Madison Square Garden in December was largely the result of an early second-period avalanche of goals – those things happen from time to time). The Caps would go 16-3-1 to finish the season from there, however, and lose only one game in regulation in which they scored a goal, that coming in a 3-2 loss in Detroit (a 2-0 loss to Ottawa and a season-ending 1-0 loss to Florida being the other losses in regulation).


Since the 6-0 ambush on February 25th, the Caps have that 16-3-1 record. But more than that, they are 6-1-0 against teams in the Stanley Cup tournament in that stretch. The Rangers are 11-7-1 over the same stretch of games, 7-4-0 against teams in the playoffs.


We’ve already covered Henrik Lundqvist, and you might have read our opinion on who the Caps should start in net. We’ll leave those pieces speak for themselves (noting, of course, that it will be Michal Neuvirth getting the call for the Caps).


At first glance, two more different coaches you won’t find than the Capitals’ Bruce Boudreau and the Rangers’ John Tortorella. The volcanic Tortorella might have cost his team the first round series in the 2009 playoffs against the Caps when he decided (or impulsively) had fun with beverage containers. But his team this season has his personality – scrappy, gritty, with a look that might suggest, “yeah, I’ll have another helping of nails and wood screws…keep ‘em comin’.”

Boudreau on the other hand, is demonstrative, flamboyant (at least to the extent of his preferred way of running a hockey team with a press-offense), and by appearances a lot more sociable. But he has changed the personality of his team to instill a pride in protecting its own end of the ice, a change that comes from drawing a bright line all the way back to the 7-0 pasting the Caps took at MSG in December. Since then the Caps have allowed barely two goals per game (2.02 to be exact).

Much might be made of whether Boudreau has the in-game capacity to adjust on the fly, but given where we think this game is going to be decided, we think that for the Caps the important piece of coaching could come in terms of whether Boudreau has found something in film to discover a new or more effective sort of wrinkle on the power play to exploit what weaknesses the Rangers might have.

Players you expect to do well…and had better

Washington: Alex Ovechkin

Let’s face it, the voices only get louder from here if Ovechkin doesn’t at least go deep into a Stanley Cup tournament...does he have what it takes? Fair or not, that’s the price that comes with being the Captain and being (depending on which city you live in) one of the top five players in the game. Lost in the noise is that Ovechkin is 20-20-40, plus-14 in 28 career playoff games. He hasn’t shrunk from the spotlight. He’s going to have to dominate it in this series.

New York: Marian Gaborik

Ryan Callahan was the sort of heart and soul player that embodied Rangers hockey this season. Gaborik, not so much. He missed 20 games this season, but a bigger problem is that he doesn’t have a goal in his last nine games and does not have a goal in his last six playoff games (all with Minnesota). If those streaks continue, the Rangers don’t have a lot of other options on offense.

Players you might not think of as possible heroes…

Washington: Matt Hendricks

Matt Hendricks might be remembered more for the bloody eye and stitched cheek he sustained in a fight in the December game against the Rangers (captured in grisly color for the HBO 24/7 series), but he also has two of the Caps’ six goals in the season series, and he has nine hits in the series. He can be the sort of productive fireplug to counter the Rangers’ productive feistiness.

New York: Artem Anisimov

A player of considerable offensive skill, the worry here is that Artem Anisimov, who has only one game of playoff experience in the NHL, will discover his clutch game in this series. The potential is there – he improved his goal scoring from 12 last season to 18 this season. But he is also oh-for-his-last-nine games in goal scoring. Caps fans will hope that whole clutch thing surfaces next year.

In the end, we are thinking a little too much is being made of the season series between these teams in that the four games were very distinct and separate in terms of the takeaways. Except for Ranger wins, there wasn’t a consistent theme in the last three that says, “yes, the Rangers are better in this area.” Save one. Henrik Lundqvist. We think this series boils down to the Caps solving Lundqvist (who is quite good enough without having to discover his inner Dryden) enough – specifically with goals scored from in close on power plays. If the Caps can do that dirty work, they win. If they don’t, they don’t. And with Lundqvist having carried the Rangers on his inflated chest protector over the last 26 games, the matter becomes one of whether he has at least four more wins in him or not. Guess what we think the answer to that question is.

Caps in five