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April 28, 2013
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers

by Corey Sznajder

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For the fourth time in the last five years, the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers will meet each other in the playoffs, and it will be the third time they have met in the first round. The Rangers came out victorious in their last playoff meeting, defeating the Caps in seven games in a series that was decided by strong defensive play and goaltending. This year's matchup poses to be a little different.

After winning the Eastern Conference in 2011-12, the Rangers did not clinch a playoff spot until their second to last game and come in as a lower seed. Meanwhile, the Caps might be the hottest team in the NHL right now. They went 11-1-1 in the month of April and took control of the Southeast Division to earn home ice advantage for the first round.

Yet while the Caps are definitely the hotter team coming in, there are some things they should be concerned about, particularly with this matchup against the Rangers.

New York offense vs. Washington defense

New York Rangers offense: -1.4 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)

At first glance, the Rangers offense can be described as "middle of the road" as they sit at 15th in the NHL with 2.62 goals per game. However, there are plenty of reasons to believe that they are better than what these results show. The Rangers are 13th in the NHL in five-on-five goals and have a solid even strength goal differential of +21. In addition, they are one of the better teams at controlling puck possession at even strength, owning 53.8% of unblocked shot attempts in close game situations.

Producing shots and creating offense hasn't been much of a problem for the Rangers, but finishing is another story. The Blueshirts have only three players with more than 15 goals, and all three of them have composed their first line for most of the year. Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, and Ryan Callahan have been both excellent as a scoring line (combining for 46.2 GVT) and have been able to control possession at a very high level.

That said, outside of Stepan, Nash, and Callahan, many Rangers forwards have struggled to find the back of the net, which could work in favor of the Caps as far as matchups go. This is likely why Nash was bumped from the first line in some recent games, to free him up for "easier" matchups while Stepan's line handled the tough minutes. The Rangers also have a couple of very good centers to place the former Blue Jackets' captain with, in Derick Brassard and Brad Richards. Brassard has thrived since joining the Rangers, while Richards has quietly produced over two points per 60 minutes of five-on-five play. Factor in Mats Zucarrello's playmaking skills and Carl Hagelin's strong puck possession game on the second or third line, and the Rangers look a lot deeper than their boxcar numbers indicate.

Washington Capitals defense: -11.5 GVT (Rank: 25th in NHL)
Washington Capitals goaltending: 6.5 GVT (Rank: 10th in NHL)

How does the Caps defense match up with this? Well, a good amount of their flaws have been covered up by goaltender Braden Holtby and his .920 save percentage, but Washington does have a pretty solid defense corps when healthy. The go-to shutdown pair for head coach Adam Oates has been John Carlson and John Erskine, who will likely see a lot of either Stepan or Nash. These two have done their jobs in terms of preventing goals, as they have been on the ice for less than two goals per 60 minutes at even strength, but the Caps have been getting badly outshot when these two are on the ice, so that could end up being a problem. If they are not up to the challenge, then Washington could turn to the tandem of Mike Green and Karl Alzner to get the job done instead, although Alzner is having a bit of a down year defensively while Green is more known for his offensive contributions than his shutdown capability. Still, these two are competent enough to log big minutes on the Caps blueline.

Washington has made a habit of getting outshot in many games this year, which is why Holtby's great play this year has been so critical. He ranks 12th in the NHL in save percentage among regular goaltenders and has allowed three or fewer goals in nine of his last 10 starts. His performance was terrific in the 2012 playoffs and he is more than capable of stealing a game or two for the Caps if need. That might be necessary if the Caps continue to get crushed on the shot clock.

Total: New York Rangers, 3.6 GVT

Advantage: New York Rangers

Washington offense vs. New York defense

Washington Capitals offense: 18.6 GVT (4th in NHL)

The Capitals' second-half surge can be traced back to the play of Alexander Ovechkin. After a slow start, Ovechkin caught fire in the months of March and April with 24 goals in 28 games. The chance of him sustaining his 17.7% shooting percentage during those months is probably unlikely in the long run, but he is still one of the most dangerous forwards in the league and is playing some of the best hockey of his career right now.

Ovechkin isn't the only forward the Rangers need to worry about, though, as his centerman, Nicklas Backstrom, is also having a fantastic season, leading Washington in even strength points per 60 minutes. Further, the offseason acquisition of Mike Ribeiro has paid enormous dividends for the Caps, as he has scored at over a point-per-game rate. Likewise, Troy Brouwer has contributed nicely with 19 goals. Unlike the Rangers, scoring depth is something that hasn't been a huge issue for the Caps, as they have had a few guys outside of their stars produce, including some lower line players such as Joel Ward and Mathieu Perreault. The midseason addition of Martin Erat should also help them out here.

However, one potentially huge issue for Washington is that much of their recent success is rooted in players running on high shooting percentages. The Caps have had a ton of trouble with winning the battle at even strength, controlling only 47-48% of the unblocked shot attempts during close game situations at even strength. If their scoring dries up and they constantly get stuck in their own zone, then it could lead to bad things. Even though Ovechkin and Backstrom are firing on all cylinders right now, it is possible that they could go through a dry spell when you look at who the Rangers have in their goal.

New York Rangers defense: 9.0 GVT (5th in NHL)
New York Rangers goaltending: 12.5 GVT (3rd in NHL)

Henrik Lundqvist hasn't received a ton of hype for the Vezina Trophy this season, but he probably should, with his .926 save percentage ranking fifth among regular NHL goaltenders. It has helped that the Rangers defense has played much better this year compared to past seasons, which hasn't forced Lundqvist to stand on this head every game. Much of the credit goes to their top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, who are trusted to play upwards of 20 minutes per game—they will have their hands full against Ovechkin and Backstrom this series. This isn't their first time playing against this matchup, though, and McDonagh is having an outstanding season, so it will be interesting to see how this matchup plays out.

The Rangers shutdown pairing for this series is a no brainer, but things get dicey after that. While the Caps have received a decent amount of depth scoring, the Rangers don't have a ton of depth on their blueline with Marc Staal still recovering from a gruesome eye injury. However, one player they have relied on is Michael Del Zotto, who has improved quite a bit from his first two seasons. He is still struggling to prevent shots against but he has been on the ice for much fewer opposing goals than in years past. That said, he along with Girardi and McDonagh are the only ones trusted to log big minutes, which could pose a problem against Washington's second and third lines.

Total: Washington Capitals, -2.9 GVT

Advantage: Washington Capitals

New York Power Play vs. Washington Penalty Kill

New York Rangers power play: -4.9 GVT (25th in NHL)
Washington Capitals penalty killing: -6.5 GVT (26th in NHL)

This is a battle of futility as the Rangers rank in the bottom third of the NHL in power play success percentage and in shots on goal per 60 minutes in five-on-four situations. The Caps penalty kill is no better, ranking 27th in penalty kill percentage and being the second worst team in the NHL at preventing shots on goal while playing with a man down. One would think that the Rangers would have a better power play with the forwards they have, but that hasn't been the case. Nash and Richards have only nine power play points apiece while Callahan leads the team with six power play goals. In theory, they should be better and take advantage of a very bad Washington PK, but nothing is a guarantee in a short series.

Total: New York Rangers, 1.6 GVT

Advantage: Stalemate

Washington Power Play vs. New York Penalty Kill

Washington Capitals power play: 13.3 GVT (1st in NHL)
New York Rangers penalty killing: 1.1 GVT (15th in NHL)

The power play has been where the Capitals have been the most dangerous. 30.1% of their overall goals have come on the man advantage, and 16 of them have come off of Ovechkin's stick. Their ability to generate shots on the power play isn't among the best in the league, but they seem to make most of them count with Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green, Brouwer, and Ribeiro all registering double-digit points on the power play.

The Caps power play could be good enough to make up for their shortcomings at even strength, and it is worth noting that the Rangers are among the league penalized teams in the NHL. The Blueshirts better hope they continue to stay out of the box because their PK has been mediocre for most of the year. They rank 15th in PK percentage and are 20th in shots allowed during four-on-five play—nothing to write home about. It is hard to fathom Washington's power play continuing to shoot at 20% with Lundqvist in net, but it has been the Caps lifeline for much of the year and should play a factor in this series.

Total: Washington Capitals, 12.2 GVT

Advantage: Washington Capitals

Season Series

The Rangers won two out of three games against the Caps, with their only loss coming in a shootout. They also outscored Washington 8-4 and outshot them 102-81 in the three games. It is debatable how much stock should be put into these numbers, but New York outplayed Washington in the season series, by far.

Advantage: New York Rangers

Injuries and Intangibles

The Rangers have been without key defenseman Marc Staal since early February and that could be a huge problem when it comes to matchups and taking some weight off of their top defense pairing. Girardi and McDonagh log huge minutes and block a lot of shots, so some wear- and tear should be expected. Both Ryane Clowe and Brian Boyle are day-to-day with various injuries, which also poses some depth problems for the Rangers.

Washington has fewer injuries but they are missing a pretty important piece in Brooks Laich, who won't return until round two after having sports hernia surgery. Whether he is centering the third line or playing in the top six, Laich plays a critical role for the Caps, and has been missed. Joel Ward is also day-to-day with a knee injury but could be back by playoff time. He has been one of their best depth players, so Washington could use him back.

Advantage: Even

Prediction

Washington Capitals: 19.0 GVT (6th in NHL)
New York Rangers: 18.0 GVT (7th in NHL)
Total difference: Washington Capitals, 1.0 GVT

It's hard not to go with the Capitals here with how well they have been playing as of late, but I tend to trust the better even strength team in a playoff series, and that team is the Rangers. The Caps power play could catapult them in front, but I see the Rangers as the better team overall, and think they will pull of the upset.

New York Rangers in seven games

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