Editor’s Note: The Leafs may not have made the playoffs, but as a true hockey fan, I can’t help but have an opinion on the most exciting time of the NHL season. Don’t worry Leaf nation, our time is coming. I’m a bit of a structuralist at times, so I’ll break down each team based on offense, defense, goaltending and special teams to try and decide which team will be sent on to the next round.
Both the Rangers and Capitals are coming off disappointing finishes last year, with the Rangers missing the playoffs on the merits of a shootout loss in the final game of the season, and the Caps suffering a first-round defeat at the hands of the eighth-seeded Canadiens. The Caps are once again the top seed in an Eastern Conference that no team seemed to want to win, but they won’t be as heavily favored against the Rangers as they were against the Habs.
Offense: There’s really no question about which team holds the offensive edge in this series. Alex Ovechkin and the Caps may not have run up the score like they did in the regular season last year, but they’re still head and shoulders above the Rangers when it comes to scoring. The Rangers’ top scorer is Brandon Dubinsky, whose 54 points matched that of 3rd-leading Caps’ scorer Alex Semin, who also missed significant stretches with injury and lengthy goal streaks. Semin, along with New York’s Marian Gaborik, could be the wild cards in this series. Both players have game-changing talents, but seem to have a very noticeable on/off switch that no outside influence can seem to influence.
Defense: While the Caps seemed to fix one of their glaring needs from last season with the late-season acquisition of Dennis Wideman, who will likely be out of the series with a leg hematoma. Mike Green should be back, but there’s no guarantee as to how effective he’ll be after missing more than a month with a concussion suffered in the Caps’ 6-0 defeat at the hands of the Rangers at the end of February. With Tom Poti out of the lineup as well, the Caps will rely heavily on youngsters John Carlson and Karl Alzner. On the flip side, the Rangers boast a youthful blueline headlined by Marc Staal. There’s not a ton of pop from the blueline, although former Leaf Bryan McCabe will certainly relish his first shot at playoff action since his days in the Blue and White. The Capitals gave up one less goal than the Rangers during the season, and I’d call this a toss-up.
Goaltending: As strong of an advantage as the Caps hold on offense over the Rangers, New York holds that and more in between the pipes. Henrik Lundqvist had a Vezina-caliber year between the pipes, posting 36 wins, a 2.28 GAA and .923 save percentage, along with a league-leading 11 shutouts. The Caps will apparently be going with rookie Michal Neuvirth this spring, after Semyon Varlamov backed them during the last two postseasons. Varlie posted slightly better numbers than Neuvirth, but played in about 20 less games, and Neuvirth’s repeated success in the AHL postseason with the back-to-back Calder Cup champion Hershey Bears probably helped Bruce Boudreau in his decision making.
Advantage: New York
Special Teams: Both teams had pretty mediocre powerplays, which is especially surprising when you consider the arsenal of weapons that Washington has to utilize with the man advantage. However, the Capitals’ penalty kill gives them the edge in the special teams battle. Washington allowed just 43 goals against over 299 penalty kills, good for an 85.6% success rate, 2nd in the league. The Rangers were in the middle of the pack when it came to killing penalties, but goaltending can always be the great equalizer, and Lundqvist can be a huge difference maker.
The Rangers managed to hold onto their playoff berth this season, but you can bet they’re kicking themselves for playing their way out of a higher seed late in the year. A matchup with rival Philadelphia or Original Six enemy Boston might have been a more favorable one on paper, but they’ll have to deal with what they’ve been handed. The absence of Ryan Callahan will be devastating, as he has been not only one of their most productive players, but provides leadership both on and off the ice. Against a Capitals team that has been gearing up for the playoffs all year, and seems to be getting hot at the right time, the Rangers will most likely be overmatched.
Editor’s pick: Caps in 6 (Lundqvist steals one for NY on the road)