By Steve Silverman
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The opponent has been formidable.
The Washington Capitals are one win away from playing for the Eastern Conference Finals. After a largely indifferent regular season, they have beaten the defending Stanley Cup Champion Boston Bruins in a seven-game series and pushed the Rangers to the limit.
What the Rangers need to take with them as they prepare for the seventh game is the confidence that they are playing a team that deserves to be there, and the belief that they must come with their best game if they are going to survive and advance.
That’s not always easy. Especially when the team you are playing finished seventh in the conference during the regular season and had a justly earned reputation as an inconsistent unit that did not often come with its best effort. The Caps were especially vulnerable when playing on the road (16-21-4 during the regular season). The Rangers can’t look at Washington’s regular-season indifference. They must be prepared for a team that has become committed to defensive effort and consistency.
We all know that Washington head coach Dale Hunter has effectively transitioned the Capitals from a team that was dependent on the offensive thrust of Alex Ovechkin and Alex Semin to one that is willing to sacrifice itself in order to smother shots. The Caps are now a team that is willing to absorb a check to make a play.
The transition has been somewhat remarkable and unprecedented. Just six weeks ago, the Caps had no identity. It was clear that Hunter wanted his team to play with a more physical presence, but he really had little success in getting his players to buy in. However, the Caps had their turning point on March 27th, in a 5-1 home loss to the Buffalo Sabres. In that game, the Sabres raced out to a 3-0 advantage and chased Washington goalie Braden Holtby. The Sabres were streaking at the time, and that win was their fifth straight as they were trying to secure a playoff spot. The Caps were beaten to nearly every loose puck and the battle level was not there.
The loss put the Caps in a desperate position to make the playoffs, and they made their first move toward turning it around in their next game, a 3-2 shootout win at Boston that gave the team confidence that it was good enough to make the playoffs. They won four of their final five games by playing with a defense-first philosophy that has only gotten stronger during the postseason.
With Ovechkin and Semin taking a bit of a backseat, the players who have stepped up are Brooks Laich, Troy Brouwer and Jason Chimera. None of those three players are going to light the lamp on a regular basis, but they have all made sure they play with a physical edge and a mean streak. Chimera has scored four goals in the Caps’ 13 playoff games and always goes to the net with his stick on the ice. He doesn’t score fancy goals, but he is difficult to move once he moves towards the front of the net. Laich is cut from the same mold and has the ability to steal important faceoffs. Brouwer is a non-stop hustler who played a key role in Chicago’s Stanley Cup run two years ago.
If the Rangers are going to survive their second consecutive seventh game, they are going to have to contain this trio of underrated forwards. The defense must clear out the space in front of Henrik Lundqvist and can’t let shots get deflected on their way towards the net.
The Caps have been formidable because they have gained the confidence that they can play with the big boys. Just when it looked darkest for them, they learned that their old ways would never work and their mindset needed to change.
They are good enough to play for the Eastern Conference Championship. If the Rangers come with anything less than their best effort, that’s just what the Capitals will end up doing.
Will the Rangers win another Game 7 against the feisty, physical Capitals? Offer your predictions for the series finale in the comments section below…