Wednesday, April 29, 2015

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

The Peerless Prognosticator is ON THE AIR!!!

One down, and…

OK, let’s just take them one at a time.  Having escaped the first round of the playoffs with a seven-game series win over the New York Islanders, the Washington Capitals take the next step in their Grand Nostalgia Tour of the post season by locking up with the New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference semifinal round.

You will remember that the Caps and Islanders met for the seventh time in the playoffs in Capitals franchise history when they met in Round 1.  Now, the Capitals face a team that they will battle for the ninth time in the post season.  Here is the history:
  • 1986 Patrick Division Semifinal – Rangers win best-of-seven, 4-2
  • 1990 Patrick Division Final – Capitals win best-of-seven, 4-1
  • 1991 Patrick Division Semifinal – Capitals win best-of-seven, 4-2
  • 1994 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Rangers win best-of-seven, 4-1
  • 2009 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Capitals win best-of-seven, 4-3
  • 2011 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Capitals win best-of-seven, 4-1
  • 2012 Eastern Conference Semifinal – Rangers win best-of-seven, 4-3
  • 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinal – Rangers win best-of-seven, 4-3
The Capitals have not faced any team in the post season more frequently than the Rangers, not the Penguins (eight times), not the Islanders (seven), not the Flyers (four).  Each team has won four series, the Caps holding a thin 25-23 edge in games won.


This will be the fifth time in seven seasons that the Caps and Rangers faced off in the playoffs, each team having won two of the previous four meetings.  With so many meetings in so narrow a space of time, you might expect that the Caps and Rangers have a fair number of players who are veterans of all four of the recent meetings.  You would be wrong on that score.  In the four series meetings since 2009, here are the skaters who have appeared in at least one game in all of them and who can be expected to play in this series:

The Rangers have completely remade their forward corps since that 2009 meeting, while the Caps have almost replaced their entire defensive squad. 

However, while the skaters have largely been swapped out between 2009 and this season for both teams, the comparison of goalies yields something very different.  Here, for example, are the Capital goaltenders having appeared over the last four series between the clubs:

And here is the list of Ranger goalies having appeared against the Capitals:

But for 40 minutes over two games, Henrik Lundqvist has tended goal for each and every game and minute of the four series played between these two teams since 2009.  There is a certain richness in that four-year record that is interesting.  For example, over his first 21 appearances in that span of games, he won consecutive games only once, that in Games 1 and 2 to open the 2009 series.  However, since he was lit up for five goals on 20 shots in 40 minutes of work in Game 6 of the 2009 series (the second straight game in which he was pulled after two periods), Lundqvist has allowed more than three goals to the Caps only once in 20 post season appearances.  If anything, his most recent performance is even more impressive.  Lundqvist has won four of his last five post season appearances against the Caps, posting shutouts in his last two games against Washington to clinch the 2013 series. As far as the regular season series is concerned, here is how the principals compare:

The Recent History: 2014-2015

The Caps and Rangers met four times this season, and things did not go so well from a Capitals perspective.  If you are going to put lipstick on this pig, first we need it to stand still:

So, what do we make of this?  On a wins-losses basis, the optimism-addled Caps fan might say, “well, they lost the first two games, but then they pasted the Rangers on their own ice and then lost the last game of the season after they already clinched a playoff spot.” 

To that we say, “nice try, Sparky.”  But that does not mean that this was as cut and dried as all that, that the Rangers are the clearly dominant team based on the season series.  The Caps out-attempted the Rangers in shots in three of the four games and tied with them in the fourth (oddly enough, the Caps’ only win).

Where the Caps shot themselves in the foot was early in games.  New York out-scored Washington in the first periods of games by a 7-2 margin and scored the first goal of the game three times (all Ranger wins).  The Caps spent too much time in too many games playing catch-up, and while the third period goal differential in the four games looks better (7-4, Caps), it was not good enough to actually pull victory from the jaws of defeat very often.

Here is a summary of the four games from the 100,000-foot level...

Special Teams

The Caps do not exactly live or die by the power play, but it is an integral part of their success, particularly the power play.  Washington scored a power play in each of the four games this past season, so if they couldn’t parlay that success into wins, at least the Caps established that they can be effective against the Ranger penalty killers.

Overall, the Caps were 4-for-13 (30.8 percent) for the season against the Rangers.  In putting together that mark the Caps had an odd set of coincidences.  In each game, their goals/shots equaled their goals/power play chances.  They had one power play on five chances in their first meeting, one goal on five shots.  It was 1-for-3 and one goal on three shots in Game 2, one goal on four opportunities and four shots in the third game, and one goal on their only opportunity and only shot in the last game of the season.

It was an effective power play (4-for-13 in chances), but it was mixed in efficiency (a 30.8 percent shooting percentage, but only 13 shots in 17:28 of power play ice time).

The Caps’ penalty kill was effective, but this is a mixed bag, too.  Killing 16 of 19 Ranger power plays was a good thing (84.2 percent), but 19 Ranger power plays in four games, giving the Rangers a plus-6 in power play chances, was not a recipe for success.  Here is another number, a worse number, a number you do not want to see in this series: 30.  The Rangers managed 30 shots on goal on 19 power plays.  That they did it over 30:34 of power play ice time makes the result sound a bit better on an efficiency basis, but it was too many shots over far too much power play ice time.  The Rangers do not have an especially effective power play overall, but if the Caps are marching to the penalty box with the frequency they did in the regular season against the Rangers, they will be marching to the first tee in the second week of May.


When looking at the Caps’ leading scorers, there is a glass half full/glass half empty quality to it.  The “half full” part is that the Rangers have not found an answer to Alex Ovechkin.  He had five goals in the four games of the series this season, recording at least one goal in each game.  On the “half empty” side, those five goals represent half the Caps’ total against the Rangers.

The overall scoring is more balanced, owing to the assists being spread around more liberally. Eleven Caps have helpers, seven of them with two or more.  John Carlson leads with four.  The “half empty” part of that glass is the fact that Nicklas Backstrom had only two assists in the four games.  Overall, the Caps’ scoring had an odd look to it; you were either a goal scorer, or you had assists, not both.  Of the 14 skaters to record points, only Marcus Johansson and Evgeny Kuznetsov managed to record both a goal and an assist (both recorded one of each).

The Rangers, as one might expect, had a bit more balance.  Eight players shared the 13 goals scored by New York in the season series.  Four of them had two or more, Rick Nash leading the way with three.  He had all of them in a hat trick performance in the teams’ first meeting of the season, a 4-2 win in New York on December 23rd.

Fourteen players recorded points, six of them with two or more.  Four players – Derick Brassard, Dan Boyle, Mats Zuccarello, and Kevin Hayes – had three assists to lead the club.  Hayes and Brassard led the team in overall points with five apiece (both went 2-3-5).

The Overall

Here is how the Capitals and the Rangers compare in their regular season numbers overall:

Who’s Hot?

For the Caps, Evgeny Kuznetsov.  He comes into this series with three goals and an assist out of the Islander series, and overall he is 8-9-17, plus-5, over his last 24 games dating back to March 5th.

For the Rangers, it would be Derick Brassard. He led the team in goal-scoring in the first-round win over the Penguins, potting three of the Rangers’ 11 goals of that series.  He has seven goals in his last 13 games dating back to March 29th.

Who’s Not?

For the Capitals, it would have to be Curtis Glencross.  He did not have a point in the Islander series and dressed for only four games.  He does not have a goal in his last 15 games (one assist over that span) after recording four in his first seven games with the Caps after being obtained from the Calgary Flames.

For the Rangers, it might have to be (at the risk of awakening the hockey gods) Martin St. Louis.  He has been streaky of late.  St. Louis went seven games without a point to end February and begin March before going 3-5-8 in his last nine games to close the regular season.  He had but one assist in the five-game first round series against Pittsburgh.  Oh, that nine-game stretch to close the regular season?  It opened and closed against the Caps; St. Louis had a goal in the first game and two assists in the last one.

Random facts to impress your friends and annoy your enemies…
  • Nineteen teams finished ahead of the Rangers in Corsi-for percentage at 5-on-5 in the regular season (49.5), a number includes 13 of other 15 teams reaching the post season (Montreal and Calgary finished behind the Rangers). By way of comparison, the Caps finished 13th overall (51.4, ninth among the 16 playoff teams; numbers:
  • Since the two became teammates, Alex Ovechkin averages more assists per game (0.51) than Nicklas Backstrom (0.48) in the post season.
  • If I told you Dan Girardi has played more post season games than any Ranger in club history, would you believe it?  True (94; Walt Tkachuk played in 93).  Alex Ovechkin is the only active Capital in the top ten in post season games played in club history (tenth with 65, one more than Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Green).
  • For the Caps, scoring more than four goals against the Rangers in regulation in a post-season game is rare.  Washington has gone 39 post season games against New York without doing so, dating back to a 7-1 win over the Rangers in Game 3 of the 1990 Patrick Division Final (the Caps won the series, 4-1).  You might remember that year as being the “Druce on the Loose” year (he had two goals and two assists in that game).
  • Mike Green is the Capitals’ all-time playoff leader in power play goals (6).  Not that this is a big list.  Only 12 defensemen in Capitals history have scored power play goals in the post season.
The Peerless’ Players to Ponder

The big “battle within the battle” is going to be Alex Ovechkin againt Henrik Lundqvist, the irresistible force against the impenetrable object.  But that won’t be the only one.  There are other players who might be heard from.

Washington: Jason Chimera

Some guys have a knack against one team.  In baseball back in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, Detroit Tiger pitcher Frank Lary was known as “Yankee Killer” for his 27-10 record against them (he was 101-106 in his career otherwise).  For the Washington Capitals, Jason Chimera seems to have knack for tormenting the Rangers and Henrik Lundqvist.  In 19 playoff games against the Rangers with the Caps, Chimera is 6-4-10 (4-10-14 in 31 career playoff games otherwise).  What is more, three of those six goals were game-winners.  Chimera did not exactly burn out the red light behind opposing goaltenders to finish the 2014-2015 regular season; he had only two goals in his last 27 games, both of them against (who else) the Rangers in a 5-2 win on March 29th, including the game-winner.

New York: Chris Kreider

Chris Kreider might be a good fit for the clandestine service.  For a big man (6’3”, 226) he can disappear at times. In the first round series against the Penguins, Kreider had one point (the game-winning goal a Ranger 2-1 win in Game 3).  It is part of a longer run in which Kreider has only that single point over his last eight games dating back to April 7th.  When he is on, though, he can be a monster.  Despite his size, his speed can be breathtaking, and he can produce in bunches.  Before this eight-game points drought, Kreider was 4-6-10 over his previous nine games.  Of course, that was preceded by a stretch in which he went 1-2-3 over ten games.  You get the point.  Let’s hope Kreider does not, scoring-wise that is.  In eight career regular season games against the Caps, Kreider has just one assist.  He had a goal and an assist in the Rangers’ seven-game series win over the Caps in 2013.

In the end…

For the second straight series the Caps have to contend with a team whose style can cause them difficulties.  The Rangers are, like the Islanders, a team that uses speed and crisp playmaking to generate offense in waves.  The difference is, the Rangers are perhaps better at it and certainly more experienced.  The real difference from that series to this, however, is that the Rangers have a world-class goaltender, whereas the Islanders had what amounted to a “Cap killer.” 

Henrik Lundqvist has been sharp since returning from a neck injury late in the season, and he is more than capable of dominating a series over its seven-game length, if it should come to that.  If there is an Achilles heel for the Rangers, it is that they have been living off their PDO (tops in the league at 5-on-5 in the regular season) much more than their raw possession numbers.

If the Caps can fight the Rangers to a draw in the possession battle, a combination of their superior power play and their physical style can grind down the Rangers.  The Rangers have a deeper team in terms of talent, but as Capital fans are acutely aware, a talent advantage does not always translate to four wins in seven games.  This series is where the Ranger’s flirtation with failure based on their possession numbers catches up with them.