The real season begins Wednesday night for the Washington Capitals. We have seen this movie before; winning the Eastern Conference and entering the playoffs as a legitimate contender to win the Stanley Cup. A season ago the Capitals were in a very similar position to the one they find themselves in this year. Suffice to say, the road map to the post season took on a very different look this year. Last year it was smooth sailing into the playoffs. This year the road was tumultuous; just what the doctor ordered in my estimation. The Capitals have faced their share of adversity this season; battling through losing streaks and injuries. They are far more mentally tough this time around, and they should reap the benefits of that this post season.
The New York Rangers will invade the Verizon Center on Wednesday in what amounts to a rematch of the first round series in 2009. The Rangers were able to steal the first two games of that series. The Capitals ultimately battled back to win the series in seven games, but that is scenario not worth repeating.
The Rangers were one of the few teams to dominate the Capitals this season. In the four games this season, the Rangers outscored the Caps 18-6, including two wins in which the Rangers outscored the Caps 13-0. This certainly will play into the psyche of the Rangers who will use those wins as a vote of confidence.
But the not-so-secret weapon arming the Rangers is Henrik Lundqvist. If the Rangers are to have any chance of winning this series, it must be on the shoulders of the King. The Rangers will go only as far as Lundqvist takes them. He is the straw that stirs the drink on Broadway. In the first round series in 2009, Lundqvist just about won the series for the Rangers if not for the third period heroics by Sergei Fedorov. But the fact that the Rangers were able to stretch that series to seven games was due to the play of Lundqvist. Over the course of his career, Lundqvist’s numbers in the playoffs are far from spectacular. A .907 save percentage and 2.66 GAA are good, but not great. Lundqvist will have to improve these numbers if the Rangers are to have a chance at stopping the likes of Ovechkin, Backstrom, and Semin. If history is any indication, we know the Capitals are going to rack up a ton of shots. But will they be quality shots? No team blocks shots better then the Rangers, so a combination of Lundqvist playing at an elite level and solid defensive play in front could spell trouble for the Capitals. The Capitals must make Lundqvist work. He played the final 26 games for the Rangers so fatigue could become an issue if this turns into a long series. The Caps need to get to Lundqvist early. Allowing the Rangers to get on top could spell trouble as the Rangers were a perfect 29-0-0 when leading after the second period.
The Capitals have seen this before. The style the Rangers play is eerily similar to the style the Canadiens implemented against the Caps last season. The Habs were able to stymie the Capitals attack by keeping everything to the outside and from the blue line. They clogged up the neutral zone, had sticks in the lanes, and sacrificed their bodies whenever possible. Now that the Caps have experienced it, will they make the appropriate adjustments to combat this?
Capitals three keys to victory
Goaltending: The biggest question surrounding the Capitals is who will be the starting goalie in game one. All indications point to Michal Neuvirth getting the start in game one. If history is any indicator, any early struggles by Neuvirth will be answered in the form of Semyon Varlamov. The last two trips to the post season saw Boudreau pull his game one starter after the first game. In both instances, Jose Theodore was tasked with game one duties and on both occasions he was relieved by Semyon Varlamov. Neuvirth was the more consistent of the two this season, racking up 27 wins to just 12 regulation losses. The Rangers are far from an offensive juggernaut, but are amongst the stingiest of teams defensively at even strength. You can expect all games in this series to be low scoring, which means solid goaltending will be paramount. Neuvirth likely will not face an inordinate amount of shots, but he must make the saves he is supposed to make. Any soft goals or ill-timed goals could spell doomsday for the Capitals as scoring on the Rangers will be no easy task. Granted Neuvirth has no NHL playoff experience, that doesn’t mean he hasn’t performed in pressure packed situations. In four seasons in North America, in the OHL and AHL, Neuvirth is yet to lose a playoff series. Neuvirth has two Calder Cups under his belt, so one can infer that he has what it takes to win. But again, nothing in his experience compares to the fire he is about to be thrown into; the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Special Teams: This series will likely be determined by the special teams. Neither team’s power play is particularly dangerous at this point. That has to change if the Capitals are going to win this series. A season ago, the Capitals managed just one power play goal against the Canadiens. That ultimately cost the Caps the series. The Rangers finished 5th in the NHL is total goals against, and 10th on the penalty kill. The Rangers have allowed just one power play goal against in their last 10 games. On the flip side, a Capitals power play that has been asleep for most of the season now have five goals in their last four games. This trend must continue for the Caps. This will be a difficult task now that we know Dennis Wideman will be inactive for the first round series. A leg hematoma landed Wideman in the hospital and reports suggest the Wideman won’t be ready until the second round at the earliest. This is bad news for the Capitals power play that ideally would have a one-two punch of Wideman and Mike Green on the points. Mike Green should be back from a concussion he ironically suffered against the New York Rangers. Nevertheless, the return of Mike Green will be huge for the Capitals power play; most importantly will allow Ovechkin to move down either the left circle of the high slot. Brooks Laich, who has been getting time on the point, has done a magnificent job. It just so happens that the recent power play success the Caps have enjoyed coincides perfectly with Brooks Laich being moved to the point. He has simplified the duty of the point person by putting hard shots on net. Jason Arnott has also shown the ability to play the point as well. The good news for the Caps power play is that they have a plethora of options. Hopefully the power play struggles are a thing of the past.
Mental Toughness: Possibly the biggest question is whether or not the Capitals are thinking about the debacle they endured last season. Will they enter this series thinking about what happened to them last season? This will not be an easy series. The Capitals will certainly have some adversity to face as this series progresses. The two teams are just too similar for there not to be. So when things aren’t going the Caps’ way, how will they react? One can only wait to find out, but surely they must handle the adversity better than they did a season ago. This is where the acquisition of Jason Arnott and Marco Sturm really pay dividends. Arnott for one is a Cup winner. He entered the Caps locker room after being acquired at the trade deadline and instantly had the attention of every member on the team. He said the things that needed to be said and the team has responded. The Caps went on a nine game winning streak soon after the Arnott’s injection into the lineup. The same goes for Marco Sturm. Sturm isn’t as vocal of a leader as Arnott, but he demands respect just the same. A major indicator of the Caps’ new found mental toughness has been the success they have had in one goal games this season. The Capitals finished 26-9-11 in one goal games this season. The Capitals faced an exorbitant amount of adversity this season, none greater then the eight game losing streak they endured in December. I can’t stress the importance of enduring that adversity then, as opposed to now. Theoretically they have learned from that experience and will be able to handle any forthcoming adversity.
When scanning the potential opponents the Capitals could face in round one of the playoffs, the Rangers were the team that scared me most. The reasons for this were Henrik Lundqvist and the defensive scheme they implement. I was reminded of how Lundqvist almost single-handedly beat the Caps two seasons ago. Additionally, the Capitals are not the offensive juggernaut they were a season ago. They have struggled to score goals for most of the season, and don’t have the power play they had a season ago either. But in comes Jason Arnott and this team has been completely different. The Rangers may have humbled the Caps in their season series, but they haven’t faced the Caps since the trade deadline acquisitions. The loss of Ryan Callahan will be huge for the Rangers. He is the heart and soul of their team; a guy who plays in every situation. With the defensive style the Capitals have implemented, it will difficult for the Rangers to put goals on the board. Assuming they Capitals remain disciplined and refrain from taking dumb penalties, they should be in good shape. The Capitals are far and away better offensively. And last but not least, I just can’t see the Caps losing to an eight seed two years in a row.
Capitals in 6
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About the Author: Jeremy is a life time hockey fan currently living in Washington DC. Jeremy also runs a Capitals blog called The Nation's Capitals where he frequently posts blogs about the state of the Caps. His other interests include music and politics. Jeremy has a degree in Political Science. Being from DC, politics kind of comes with the territory.