Heading into Saturday afternoon’s season finale with the New Jersey Devils, the New York Rangers knew what they had to do to ensure bypassing a first-round meeting with the top-seeded Pittsburgh Penguins.
They did just that and then some, picking up 2 points against the team they eliminated from playoff contention a week earlier with a 4-0 win. The victory vaulted them into sixth place, a position secured after the Philadelphia Flyers defeated the Ottawa Senators Saturday night. It sets up a first-round date with the Washington Capitals beginning Thursday, May 2nd at the Verizon Center. This will be the fourth time in the last five seasons the two teams will lock horns in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Both the Rangers and Capitals are changed teams since their three meetings, in which the Blueshirts went 2-0-1. The Caps, who couldn’t get out of their own way at the onset of the truncated season, began to get rolling around the time of the third meeting – a game the Caps won 3-2 in a shootout. The Rangers were just keeping afloat until their mini-makeover around the trade deadline that game them more depth and balance than they had in close to 2-1/2 months of play.
Unlike last year, the Rangers will not be going into the match up as the higher seed, but by no means does that make them an underdog. Both teams finished with similar records (Capitals 27-18-3, 57 points; Rangers 26-18-4, 56 points) and comparable goal differentials (Capitals +19; Rangers +18). Like last year though, this will be a long series. The Rangers can prevail – and I do think they will win it in seven – if they can have success in the following areas.
Health - While getting back to health is critical to most teams now racing to 16 wins, this might be the upside to having this series start Thursday. Several Rangers are still nursing injuries: Marc Staal (eye), Ryane Clowe (undisclosed, suspected concussion), Brian Boyle (leg) and Derek Dorsett (fractured clavicle). Monday, Staal practiced with the team while Dorsett , who was not cleared after a CT scan, was on-ice in a non-contact jersey. Clowe and Boyle did not participate. These guys – all important cogs in how far the Rangers can actually go – now have three more days to heal further without missing games.
Goaltending - Some things don’t change. Water is wet. Sky is blue. As Henrik Lundqvist goes so do the Rangers. Lundqvist, who on Saturday passed Eddie Giacomin as the team’s all-time shutout leader, wasn’t named the team MVP for the 7th consecutive season for nothing. Lundqvist did not begin the season at the Vezina-worthy level he had the season prior, but came on strong late, making 14 straight starts to finish out the season, allowing 2 or fewer goals in 10 of those starts. Braden Holtby proved last year Eastern Conference Semifinal he can go save-for-save with Lundqvist. “The King” will need to take it to the next level and steal games for the Rangers to move on.
Containing Ovie - The Alex Ovechkin that showed up earlier this year – the one who looked a shell of his old, bull-in-china-shop self – is not the one that will be coming into this Eastern Conference Quarterfinal matchup. The defense corps – notably Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi – will have their hands full with this year’s Rocket Richard Trophy winner but have proven in the past capable of neutralizing the threat. Beyond the two of them are Michael Del Zotto and Anton Stralman, both of whom have had up-and down seasons; 22-year-old John Moore, new to the second season; and Steve Eminger (I’m not even bringing Roman Hamrlik and Matt Gilroy into this discussion, as one of the aforementioned six would have to be severely incapacitated for one or both of them to get ice in this series). John Tortorella will have his work cut out for him not only figuring out the pairings, but how to get the desired matchups while on the road.
Balancing Act - A team starving for offense earlier in the season has broken out. In 14 games in April, the Blueshirts managed 4 or more goals 8 times. The goals didn’t just come from the usual suspects like Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan, but from secondary and even tertiary guys. They’ll need those contributions to keep coming. If the defense can get in on the act and give the kinds of offensive contributions they did last year in the playoffs, all the better.
Discipline - The Rangers usually solid penalty kill ended up finishing a middling 15th (81.1%) in the regular season. The Capitals finished first on the power play, clicking at 26.8% efficiency. Despite all of those “too many men” penalties the Rangers took when the season began, they still managed to be the least penalized team in the NHL. They will need to maintain that discipline in order to take away one of the most dangerous weapons in the Capitals’ arsenal.
About the Author: Likes: Hockey, the New York Rangers, King Henrik, singing the Rangers goal song, "The Save", the sound skates make against ice, heckling Marty Brodeur. Dislikes: 3-point games, front-office mismanagement, Denis Potvin, overpriced arena beer. Interested? Follow me on Twitter: @CC_927