Menu

HOCKEY

Stanley Cup Playoff Preview - NY Rangers vs. Washington

A popular credo during the Stanley Cup playoffs is "survive and advance."

Although the top-seeded New York Rangers were able to follow that rule in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs, they'd probably have liked to have defeated the Ottawa Senators in more convincing fashion.

The eighth-seeded Senators pushed the Atlantic Division champions to the brink in Round 1, but New York was able to grind out a 2-1 victory in Game 7. The Rangers needed to win the final two games of the series to advance.

It was the first series victory for the Rangers since 2008, when they beat New Jersey in the first round before losing to Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference semifinals.

New York is the top seed in the East for the first time since it won its last Stanley Cup title in 1994 and the Rangers will be aiming for their first conference finals appearance since 1997.

The Rangers defeated Ottawa in the first round by utilizing their superior defense and goaltending, a formula that has helped them be successful all year long. Under head coach John Tortorella, New York was ranked third in the NHL this season in goals allowed, yielding an average of just 2.22 goals per contest. The Blueshirts did even better than that in the first round, surrendering just 13 goals over the seven games.

New York's best player is often goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, a four-time Vezina Trophy finalist. In addition to landing another Vezina nod this season, the 30-year-old Swede was also named as a finalist for the Hart Trophy.

Lundqvist posted terrific numbers in the first round against Ottawa, allowing 12 goals on 217 shots for a .945 save percentage and a 1.70 goals-against average. He is 19-23 all-time in the postseason with a 2.45 GAA and a .915 save percentage.

New York's biggest strength outside of its crease is a talented and deep defensive corps that is led by the impressive top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, Girardi averaged a team-high ice time of 28 minutes, 3 seconds in the opening round and he was tied for second on the club with four points off one goal and three assists.

McDonagh failed to reach the scoresheet in the opening round after finishing second to Michael Del Zotto in scoring among New York defensemen in the regular season. Del Zotto, who paced the Rangers' blue line with 10 goals and 41 points in 2011-12, registered two assists in seven games against the Senators.

Del Zotto normally skates with Marc Staal, who recorded a goal and an assist in the first round. Anton Stralman averaged just 15:44 of ice time in Round 1, but was able to notch two goals and two assists.

While the Rangers boast a world-class goaltender and one of the best defensive units in the league, New York's forward depth leaves something to be desired. The team's offense would certainly improve if top sniper Marian Gaborik can get his game back on track after a disappointing first round.

The speedy Gaborik led the Rangers with 41 goals and 76 points during the regular season, but he finished with one goal and two assists against Ottawa and was held pointless in the last three games of the series. The former Minnesota Wild star has 14 goals and 13 assists in 41 career postseason tilts.

Brian Boyle led the club with three goals against Ottawa, but his status for the conference semifinals is cloudy. Boyle suffered a concussion in Game 5 against Ottawa and sat out the last two games of the series. but the centerman is questionable for the start of this series.

Top centerman Brad Richards led New York with five points on two goals and three assists in the opening round. Richards, a proven playoff performer who won the Conn Smythe Trophy during Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup title in 2004, is partaking in his first playoff run as a Rangers. The recipient of a mammoth nine-year, $60 million contract in the offseason, the 31-year-old has compiled 67 points (23 goals, 44 assists) in 70 career playoff games.

Captain Ryan Callahan is also coming off a solid series, posting two goals, two assists and a plus-two raring against Ottawa. The gritty two-way player also led all Rangers forwards with an average ice time of 23:20 over the seven games.

An intriguing addition to the Rangers' offense is highly-touted forward prospect Chris Kreider. The 20-year-old was playing collegiate hockey at Boston College just a few weeks ago, but has joined New York after signing an entry-level contract with the team that selected him with the 19th overall pick of the 2009 draft.

Kreider broke into the lineup in Game 3 of the Ottawa series after fellow rookie Carl Hagelin was suspended for three games. Kreider, who could be one of the fastest players in the NHL, scored a goal in five games and was earning top-six minutes by the end of the series. Kreider logged 18:21 of ice time in Game 7, beating Gaborik in that department.

Derek Stepan also had a strong opening round with one goal and three assists over the seven games.

New York's biggest weakness appears to be getting results on the power play, where the Rangers were ranked 23rd in the league with a 15.7-percent success rate during the regular season. The Blueshirts connected on 15.6 percent of their power-play chances against the Senators, scoring five times on 32 opportunities with the man advantage.

With Lundqvist in net and a strong defensive corps in front of him, it should not come as a surprise that the Rangers are difficult to score against on the power play. New York was ranked fifth in the league in killing penalties in 2011-12, stopping the opposition's power play from scoring 86.2 percent of the time. Tortorella's club killed off 19 of Ottawa's 23 PP chances (84.6 percent) in Round 1.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS (7th seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 42-32-8

2012 PLAYOFFS: Defeated Boston 4-3 in conference quarterfinals

(Sports Network) - Dale Hunter has preached defensive responsibility since taking over as Washington's head coach this season and his system finally appeared to take root in a shocking first-round upset of the Boston Bruins.

Hunter's Capitals ousted the defending Stanley Cup champions in seven games, outscoring the second-seeded Bruins by a 16-15 margin in an extremely tightly- contested series.

To anybody who has closely followed the Capitals over the last several seasons it is absolutely shocking to see how effective Washington was in its own end against the Bruins. After all, under previous head coach Bruce Boudreau, who was fired on Nov. 28, the Capitals often seemed content to rely on the offensive skill of Alex Ovechkin to get them victories. Although Boudreau tried at times to get his club to be more responsible on defense, the plan never took hold the way it did for Washington in the opening round of the 2012 playoffs.

Speaking of Ovechkin, the Russian sniper has seen his ice time dwindle under Hunter. While other Capitals like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, who are both known mostly for their scoring, have bought into Hunter's strategy, Ovechkin is still struggling to mesh with the new coach's philosophy.

Even with his reduced ice time, Ovechkin managed to lead all Washington players with five points (2G, 3A) in the opening round of the postseason.

Hunter has been given a great deal of credit for Washington's upset of the Bruins in the first round, and deservedly so, but it's hard to ignore the contributions of rookie goaltender Braden Holtby.

The 22-year-old Holtby was forced into a starting role in Round 1 after Washington's top-two netminders -- Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth -- were both sidelined with injuries heading into the playoffs. Neuvirth has since returned to health, but Hunter was wise to keep using the red-hot rookie as the starter.

Holtby had 21 games of regular-season experience under his belt, but had never seen action in an NHL playoff game before Game 1 against the Bruins. A fourth- round draft pick by Washington in 2008, Holtby stopped 233-of-248 shots in the seven games against Boston for a .940 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average. He also won Game 7 in overtime, stopping 31-of-32 shots to shock the Bruins.

While Holtby was obviously Washington's MVP in Round 1, Semin may have been Washington's best skater. He led the team with three goals and was an absolute menace on the forecheck. Backstrom also played strong defense and was tied for second on the team in scoring against the Bruins, matching Brooks Laich's output of one goal and three assists.

Even the much-maligned Joel Ward finally added some positive memories to his time in Washington. Ward, a former Nashville forward, was signed to a four- year, $12 million deal in the offseason, but he disappointed with just six goals and 12 assists in 73 games during the 2011-12 campaign. However, he scored the OT winner in Game 7 against Boston and finished the series with one goal and two assists.

All told, Washington had 12 different players register a goal in the opening round and only Ovechkin, Semin and Troy Brouwer, who tallied twice, had more than one marker.

Mike Green had the one and only goal by a Washington defenseman in Round 1, but the Capitals' blueliners did supply a total of nine assists in seven games against the Bruins. Green finished with two points, while veteran Roman Hamrlik notched three helpers. Both players were tied for the team high with plus-five ratings in the series.

In terms of ice time, Hunter used the steady Karl Alzner for a team-high 24 minutes, 55 seconds per game. Green was next at 23:19 and John Carlson was just four seconds behind him.

Outside of Green, Dennis Wideman is the club's best offensive weapon from the back end, but he is widely considered to be a one-dimensional player.

Washington did a tremendous job of shutting down Boston's power play in the opening round, killing 21-of-23 opportunities. However, the Caps were only able to score three times on 19 power-play chances of their own.

MATCHUP

The Rangers have established themselves as one of the hardest teams to score against in the NHL and the Capitals proved that they could play the same brand of hockey in this year's opening round.

Washington will attempt to continue its stingy play against the Rangers and the result could be a tightly-contested Eastern Conference semifinal series.

The Rangers and Caps split four meetings this year with each team winning a game at home and on the road. Overall, Washington outscored the Blueshirts by a 13-11 margin during the 2011-12 season series.

Lundqvist played in three of the four games against the Capitals in the regular season and went 2-1 with a 3.00 GAA and .859 save percentage. Holtby faced the Rangers once this season on April 7 in New York and stopped 35-of-36 shots to help Washington earn a 4-1 victory. However, the Rangers had little to play for when they faced Holtby a few weeks ago, having already clinched the division title and the top seed in the East.

Gaborik recorded just one goal in four games against Washington in 2011-12, while Callahan had a goal and four assists in the season series. Carlson led all Washington players with five points (2G, 3A) in three games against the Rangers. Ovechkin had a goal and three assists versus the Blueshirts, while Semin posted three goals.

This marks the seventh playoff series between the Rangers and Capitals and Washington has taken four of those six matchups. The Capitals beat New York in the conference quarterfinals in both 2009 and 2011, winning last year's series in just five games. The last time the Rangers defeated Washington was in the 1994 conference semifinals.

The Caps hope they can frustrate New York the same way tghey did against the Bruins, but that will be difficult because the Rangers have been a more consistent team than the defending champs this season. Although he played a terrific series against Boston, Holtby is still a question mark in net due to his limited playoff experience.

Expect Tortorella's Rangers to eventually figure out the Capitals in what should be a series full of close games.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Rangers in 6