By Brian Monzo
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What would playoff hockey be without the Rangers playing the Capitals?
It seems as though this has become an annual thing. It sure is fun. So now it’s time to look at New York and Washington — again — and break down how the teams match up against each other in the quarterfinals of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs.
I could sit here, completely sugarcoat this, and say it wouldn’t be a big deal if the Rangers lose. It was a shortened season, Marc Staal’s status is questionable, etc., etc.
The fact of the matter is the Rangers have to win this series — and in a somewhat dominating fashion. The Rangers played two seven-game series last year and advanced to the conference finals, only to lose to the New Jersey Devils in six games.
HARTNETT: FEARLESS PLAYOFF PREDICTIONS
If the Rangers are going to be a team that makes a huge run in the playoffs, they’ll need to win a series in five games. How about a sweep?
I’m just saying…
The Rangers finished in the sixth spot in the East, so the Capitals have the extra game at home. It only becomes a true advantage if the series goes seven games. That aside, I don’t think the extra game means that much.
The Capitals start and finish with Alex Ovechkin. To me, that’s an amazing sentence. Over the past few seasons, Ovechkin was not the player we all came to know and fear. This season, 32 goals in 48 goals reminded everyone that he’s still a force.
Offensive-minded defenseman Mike Green found his game for the first time in a long time toward the end of the season, and goaltender Braden Holtby, who gave the Rangers fits last year is back with more experience.
The Capitals have a lot of depth up front with talented forwards Nicklas Backstrom, Martin Erat and Troy Brouwer. Green, Karl Alzner and John Carlsson lead the Caps’ defense.
The key, though, is finding a way to shut down Ovechkin.
The Rangers need everyone to keep up the play of the past three weeks. The team lacked quality forwards for much of 2012-13, but acquiring Derick Brassard, Ryane Clowe (status uncertain with injury) and bringing Mats Zuccarello back paid huge dividends late in the season.
New York will need its top forwards – Rick Nash, Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan and Brad Richards – to continue to be its best players. Secondary scoring will have to come from Zuccarello, Brassard, Carl Hagelin and even Chris Kreider. Kreider was a stud in the playoffs last season, but struggled to find a spot on the roster this season. With Clowe’s status in the air, other players are going to have step up.
Brian Boyle’s status is also unclear, so players like Taylor Pyatt and Arron Asham may see more shifts. Derek Dorsett hasn’t been able to play due to injury, but the fiesty winger could return sooner than later.
Offensively, the most important thing for the Rangers is to get solid, even-strength play from Nash, Stepan and Richards. New York was missing a dominating goal scorer last season. Now they have Rick Nash, who scored 21 goals in the shortened season. Stepan turned in a great regular season, scoring 18 goals and adding 26 assists in 48 games. Callahan ended his season on a tear, with 12 points in the last seven games.
Defensively, the Rangers have been decent. Not great. Decent.
Ryan McDonagh has been good, Dan Girardi actually struggled this season and Marc Staal missed half the season with an eye injury. Staal may return for the series, which would be great news for the Rangers.
Michael Del Zotto turned his game on and has looked like a top four defenseman. John Moore came over in the Marian Gaborik trade and will given a huge role in this series as the Rangers look for offense from their blueline. Anton Stralman will help solidify the core.
As usual, the most important part of the Rangers’ game will be the play of Henrik Lundqvist. He struggled during the early parts of the season, but eventually turned back into vintage Lundqvist. His numbers (goals against at 2.05 with 24 wins and a save percentage at .926) put him in the Vezina conversation again.
The Rangers’ success clearly comes and goes with Lundqvist’s ability to steal games. The fact is, as great as Lundqvist is (and he is great) he needs to win a playoff series or two and find a way to get to the Stanley Cup finals.
The Capitals’ power play hits at close to 26 percent, good for the tops in the NHL. Fortunately for the Rangers, they have a solid penalty kill and were also the least-penalized team in the league.
You don’t need to be a genius to realize the key to stopping the Capitals starts with roughing up Ovechkin. The Rangers need to put a body on him every time he is on the ice. If not, he’s going to find open ice, and he’s going to score.
If the Rangers can sustain that, find ways to score, get dominant play from Lundqvist, they should be able to win this series.
Like I said, the best thing for the Rangers would be a quick series. If they can win this in five games, it should help them immensely as the playoffs move forward. If the series goes long, it’s going to make things that much harder.
I think the Blueshirts — and Lundqvist — are hitting their stride at the right time.
I am taking the Rangers in five.
Follow Brian Monzo on Twitter @BMonzoWFAN.
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