By Steve Silverman
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The thought of a humiliating loss to the No. 8 seed Ottawa Senators has been pushed aside. They have survived and get to move on and face a Washington Capitals team that is much different than previous editions. When the Capitals brought in Dale Hunter early in the season to replace Bruce Boudreau, the idea was that he would help transform the Capitals from a one-time offensive dynamo to a team that was responsible defensively.
Throughout most of the regular season, it appeared that Hunter was not going to be able to get that point across effectively to his players. The Caps were in danger of missing the playoffs until the final week of the season and they secured the No. 7 spot when they defeated the Rangers in the final game of the regular season.
That game was the springboard to their first-round upset of the Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins. When they walked into the Garden for the regular-season finale, the Rangers were playing for the President’s Trophy. The Capitals scored twice in the first 2-plus minutes and rolled to a 4-1 victory. Braden Holtby stopped 35-of-36 shots in an effort that left Hunter and the rest of the Capitals thinking they had a real goaltender between the pipes.
Holtby would go on to greater heights against the Bruins in the first round. He survived wave after wave of relentless attack and was nearly flawless. He got plenty of defensive help from Karl Alzner, Roman Hamrlik and John Carlson. They kept Bruin players like Milan Lucic and Brad Marchand away from the front of the net and that prevented playmakers like Patrice Bergeron and David Krejci from zipping passes through the offensive zone.
Washington’s strategy was effective, but what was really impressive was their ability and willingness to trade hits with a team that prides itself on physical play. Washington never showed any doubt in itself. There was never a feeling from the first puck drop that they didn’t belong on the ice with the defending Stanley Cup champions. Part of the Bruins’ game is intimidation. The only time they got into the heads of the Capitals is when they survived Game 3 in Washington and Nicklas Backstrom cross-checked Rich Peverley in the face and was suspended for the fourth game.
Beating the Bruins is one thing, but sustaining their success against a Rangers team that can breathe again is quite another. The Rangers were not at their best in much of the last month of the regular season and in the first round of the playoffs. But they survived and advanced. They dominated the Eastern Conference in the regular season and they can execute far better than the Capitals.
Holtby is a nice story for the Capitals, but Henrik Lundqvist is the best goalie in the league. If you want an argument, it may come from Jonathan Quick in Los Angeles and not from a player who had a hot playoff series. You want defenseman who can clear out the front of the net and block shots, the Rangers have the Capitals beaten in that area with Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Marc Staal. Anton Stralman is no slouch and has value on the power play, while Michael Del Zotto has offensive skills and can man the point on the power play.
Offensively, the Rangers have to be concerned with Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Backstrom, but Brooks Laich may be the one to worry about. Laich will go to the dirty areas, take big hits and make plays when the game is on the line.
Washington has to try to contend with New York’s depth on offense. The speed and skill of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin is easy to identify. It is much harder to defend. Gaborik had a relentlessness to his game this year that he rarely showed in the past. Richards is a natural leader who has shown signs that he will be at his best in the big games. The X-factor may be Brian Boyle, who missed the last two games of the Ottawa series with a concussion. If he comes back strong and healthy, the Caps may not have much of an answer.
The goal for the Rangers is to be playing through mid-June. That would not have been possible without last night’s 7th game survival exercise against Ottawa. Now that the first round is in the past, at least some of the weight has been lifted.
That should allow for a bit more freedom in the second round. If the Rangers can hold on to their home-ice advantage in the first two games, they should have the Caps on the run. Look for that to happen and for the Rangers to find their stride. They will handle Washington in five games.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).