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April 13, 2011
NHL Playoffs, First Round
Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers

by Timo Seppa

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In 2010, you were flat-out cuckoo to pick the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens over the top-seeded Washington Capitals, but in 2011, it's almost fashionable to pick the eighth-seeded New York Rangers over the top-seeded Washington Capitals. And you know what? I agree.

Statistically, the teams are really close, much closer than you'd expect from a first seed and an eighth seed, especially an eighth seed that backed into the playoffs via another team's Game 82 loss. Putting aside points, putting aside seeds, putting aside the Capitals' dominance of the Eastern Conference over the past few regular seasons, there's one obvious tiebreaker: a season series utterly dominated by the Rangers. It might be seven games, or it might only be six, but I'm pretty confident about who will win this one.

Washington Offense vs. New York Defense

Washington Capitals Offense: -5.0 GVT (Rank: 19th in NHL)

This wasn't the 2008-09 Boston Bruins regressing to the mean—and then some—in 2009-10. This was a Washington Capitals offensive juggernaut that was anchored by star players like Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alexander Semin and Mike Green. You'd figure it would have to be a typo for a team that was far-and-away the best scoring team of 2009-10 to come in as a below-average offensive team in 2010-11…ranking below the scoring-challenged Rangers! Strange, but true. There is an element of bad luck involved, as the Caps take a slightly-above average 31.3 shots per game (12th in NHL).

New York Rangers Defense GVT: +14.5 (Rank: 3rd in NHL)

For anyone paying attention to GVT, they would have seen that Marc Staal was already one of the 10 best defensemen in the NHL last season. He hasn't regressed. Along the lines of the Philadelphia Flyers template from last postseason, expect Staal and defensive partner Dan Girardi to log big minutes to maximize their ice time, especially against Washington's most dangerous players. The Broadway duo was largely responsible for keeping Alex Ovechkin to zero goals and two assists in the four meetings between the teams this season. New York also leads the league in shot blocking…but they're paying the price for that double-edged sword, with Ryan Callahan out for the postseason.

New York Rangers Goaltending GVT: +14.9 (Rank: 5th in NHL)

Henrik Lundqvist came in third among goaltenders in GVT this season, but if you take out the shootout GVT that's not applicable in the playoffs, he would have come in sixth (passed by Luongo, Price and Ward). If you're looking for a negative, Lundqvist's career postseason save percentage of .907 is well below his career regular season save percentage of .918, despite the 10% shutout rate he's posted in the playoffs.

Total: Washington Capitals, -34.4 GVT

Advantage: New York Rangers

New York Offense vs. Washington Defense

New York Rangers Offense GVT: +0.0 GVT (Rank: 16th in NHL)

It's kind of shocking to see the Rangers as a dead-on league-average offensive team. Translation: there must be 14 teams out there that really stink at putting the puck in the net! That rating is inflated, in a sense, by New York's blowout wins against Washington and Philadelphia. More frequently, the challenge for the Blue Shirts is to come out on the winning end of a 1-0, 2-1 or 3-2 game, instead of losing by that count.

Washington Capitals Defense: +13.9 GVT (Rank: 5th in NHL)

Who would have thought of the Caps as a primarily defensive team? Like New York, Washington does a fine job of minimizing shots, standing ninth in the NHL at 29.0 shots against per game. Young defensemen John Carlson and Karl Alzner rank in the top 10 and top 20 players respectively by defensive GVT, while the suddenly scoring-challenged Nicklas Backstrom and secondary scorer Brooks Laich are Washington's best forwards on D.

Washington Capitals Goaltending: +13.1 GVT (Rank: 6th in NHL)

The combination of youngsters Michal Neuvirth, Semyon Varlamov and Braden Holtby surprisingly combined for the sixth-best goaltending in the NHL. The question is why Neuvirth has gotten to the top of the pecking order. Varlamov and Holtby both posted better save percentages, Varlamov has had his share of excellent playoff performances in his young career, and both Varlamov and Holtby have faced significantly less shots this season—an important factor for goaltenders under the age of 24. The good news is that Boudreau's not anchored to one netminder or another. In fact, a change will be likely after the first shaky performance of the nominal number one starter.

Total: New York Rangers, -27.0 GVT

Advantage: Washington Capitals

Washington Power Play vs. New York Penalty Kill

Washington Capitals Power Play: -0.2 GVT (Rank: 12th in NHL)
New York Rangers Penalty Kill GVT: +9.2 (Rank: 5th in NHL)
Total: Washington Capitals, -9.4 GVT

The Caps' power play that notched goals at a dominant 1 out of 4 clip in 2009-10 now scores at an exceedingly average 17.5% rate. The Blue Shirts have a solid 83.7% penalty kill; New York both draws more minor penalties and takes fewer minors than Washington.

Advantage: New York Rangers

New York Power Play vs. Washington Penalty Kill

New York Rangers Power Play GVT: -1.4 (Rank: 13th in NHL)
Washington Capitals Penalty Kill: +10.8 GVT (Rank: 3rd in NHL)
Total: New York Rangers, -12.2 GVT

New York's slightly below-average power play efficiency (16.9%) is offset by drawing an above-average number of penalties. And who would have thunk it? While Ovechkin and company have trouble scoring, they've got one of the best penalty kills in the NHL (85.6%).

Advantage: Washington Capitals

Season Series Results

Washington took the first game of the season series 5-3, way back on November 9th. If a 3-1 game advantage and a 18-6 goal differential wasn't bad enough, consider that it's been 3-0 in games and 15-1 in goals for the Blue Shirts since then. That's complete domination, including 7-0 and 6-0 thrashings (one against each of Varlamov and Neuvirth). If you didn't know anything else about the two teams, that would be enough to flag a potential upset.

Advantage: New York Rangers

Faceoffs

Washington Capitals: 51.6% (Rank: 6th in NHL)
New York Rangers: 47.7% (Rank: 25th in NHL)

Though elite faceoff man David Steckel (63.7%) is no longer with the Capitals, nearly all of Washington's veteran options are above-average or better.

While the Blue Shirts have been a well below-average faceoff team in 2010-11, Brandon Dubinsky (52.5%) has fared well as their go-to man. Conversely, sophomore Artem Anisimov (44.5%) and rookie Derek Stepan (38.5%) have been unspeakably poor on draws. The return of captain Chris Drury brings a faceoff specialist back into the mix for the Rangers…if nothing else.

Advantage: Washington Capitals

Injuries and Intangibles

Despite late season clunkers against the Islanders and Thrashers, the hallmark of this edition of the New York Rangers has been effort—and that's a testament to both head coach John Tortorella and to the players on the team. Almost without exception, opposing teams need to bring their A game against New York, or the Blue Shirts will relentlessly outhustle them. Sometimes, the Rangers may outshoot their opposition and still lose due to their lack of scoring punch, as they did against Minnesota in early March, when the shot count was two to one in New York's favor. At other times, they'll run an elite team like Washington or Philadelphia right out of the building if they're not ready to match the Rangers intensity.

Injuries hurt both teams. With talented sparkplug Ryan Callahan in the lineup, you'd feel even better about the Rangers, but alas. On the other hand, the acquisition of Dennis Wideman as a puck-moving defenseman seemed to help an offensively-searching Caps squad; now with Wideman out for the first round, and Mike Green rusty if available, there are more reasons to think that Washington's offense may have its share of struggles.

And to state the obvious: given the ugly upsets, collapses and Game 7 losses of the past few postseasons, doubt will creep into the Caps' minds unless they can play this series from comfortably ahead. Far, far ahead. They know that even a 3-1 series lead isn't safe against an eighth seed.

Advantage: New York Rangers

Prediction

New York Rangers: +35.0 GVT (Rank: t-5th in NHL)
Washington Capitals: +27.0 GVT (Rank: 7th in NHL)
Total GVT Difference: New York Rangers, +8.0 GVT

Weird to see the eighth-place team with a better goal differential, and hence a better GVT, isn't it? The Capitals do have a slightly better shot differential, but it's not enough to tip the weight of evidence in their favor.

New York Rangers in seven games

Timo Seppa is an author of Hockey Prospectus. You can contact Timo by clicking here or click here to see Timo's other articles.

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