By Sean Hartnett
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The speed-burning Rangers are the fastest team in the NHL. They will be met in Round 2 by a physical, heavy-hitting Washington Capitals squad looking to slow them down.
“I think (Brooks) Orpik and (Matt) Niskanen really help their D-core,” Rangers center Derick Brassard said. “Two guys that are hard to play against. Having a new coach and a new mentality behind the bench I think really helped them. It’s going to be a big challenge for us. They have a really good team. It’s going to be our biggest challenge so far.
“They really respect the way their coach wants them to play. They have a really good structure now. Their players are willing to pay the price. They’re competing real hard. That’s why they’re having a lot of success this year.”
The Capitals lead all remaining playoff teams with 313 hits. Head coach Barry Trotz has molded Washington into a tight-defending and rugged group that finishes every check. Soon, the Caps will learn that you can’t hit what you can’t catch. The quick-strike Rangers thrive in the transition game and can exploit the Caps with their foot speed.
“We’re going to try and play to our strengths,” Rangers head coach Alain Vigneault said. “Play a fast game, play a quick north-south game. We know what to expect from them. We’re going to try to play to our strengths.”
CAN THE RANGERS PULL TOGETHER WHILE ZUCC IS SIDELINED?
At this point, it’s unclear how long creative winger Mats Zuccarello will be missing from the Rangers’ lineup. The team has described Zuccarello’s injury as an upper-body issue with an indefinite timetable. It is suspected that Zuccarello suffered a concussion when he was struck in the face by a Ryan McDonagh slap shot during Game 5 against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Vigneault has not ruled out the possibility of Zuccarello returning at some point during the series. He was asked following Wednesday’s practice whether he expected Zuccarello to miss the entire series.
“I wouldn’t say that,” Vigneault responded. “I’d just say he’s out indefinitely at this time.”
The absence of Zuccarello hinders the Rangers’ line balance. Previously, New York rolled three dangerous scoring lines. Without Zuccarello, the pressure will be on veteran winger Martin St. Louis to rekindle the magic that helped lift the Rangers to last year’s Stanley Cup Final.
Zuccarello sets a tone that carries through the team with his energetic play, determination to win puck battles and an ability to play much larger than his diminutive 5-foot-7, 179-pound frame. It will be interesting to see how the Blueshirts cope with his absence.
Based on Wednesday’s practice, the Rangers’ Game 1 forward lines are expected to be: Nash-Brassard-St. Louis; Kreider-Stepan-Miller; Hagelin-Hayes-Fast; and Sheppard-Moore-Glass.
HART TROPHY FINALIST OVECHKIN IS A MAN ON A MISSION
Washington captain Alex Ovechkin has the ability to take over a series. A blistering one-timer, an explosive stride, rapid acceleration, momentum-changing hits, an array of jawdropping one-on-one moves – there are so many ways that he can make the difference.
Ovechkin has added a new dimension by embracing a 200-foot game. He’s moving his legs and playing team-first hockey in all zones. He is no longer is stationary figure in the defensive zone. The Great Eight looks like a man on a mission.
Having faced the Capitals twice this season, Rangers backup goalie Cam Talbot knows all about the danger posed by Ovechkin.
“He makes it tough on goalies,” Talbot said. “Any time you shoot the puck that often, with that kind of velocity – the puck changes direction. It’s tough to read.
“You never know when he’s going to release the puck. That’s really dangerous. Sometimes he’s looking down at the puck and trying to drag it through the defense, and he’ll snap it right through. A few times against us this year, he’s gotten some fortuitous bounces off our defensemen and in. He scored three on me alone in the two games that I played. All three went off one of our defensemen and in. When he shoots the puck, he does a good job of trying to shoot it through guys and not around guys.”
LUNDQVIST GIVES RANGERS A TREMENDOUS EDGE
Caps goalie Braden Holtby has an aggressive style that is opposite of deep-playing Rangers star Henrik Lundqvist. Holtby challenges opponents and often strays beyond his crease. His aggressiveness can sometimes be his undoing. Not only does playing aggressively leave Holtby susceptible positions, his active style burns a lot of energy over the course of a game.
Holtby has taken on a heavy workload in 2014-15. Including the playoffs, he has played a total of 79 games. There were times when Holtby appeared gassed during as Washington’s seven-game series with the Isles wore on. This led to fatigue-based errors.
Lundqvist is the opposite of Holtby. He stays as deep as possible, relying on patience and quick reactions. Lundqvist prides himself on being technically sound. By limiting his movements, Lundqvist is able to stay fresh even in multiple overtime contests.
The experience of pushing his body through double overtime games in last year’s Stanley Cup is stored in Lundqvist’s memory. He has the big-game experience — and when it comes down to it, who else would you rather have between the pipes? King Henrik remains in a class of his own.
SPECIAL TEAMS BATTLE
You don’t need a lethal power play to lift Lord Stanley. Three of the last four Stanley Cup champions had a postseason power play below 13 percent. Neither the Rangers nor the Caps were able to get their power play clicking in the first round. The Rangers went 3-for-20 (15 percent) against Pittsburgh, while the Caps went 2-for-13 (15.4 percent) against the Isles.
Against the Pens, Rangers penalty killers were able to force Pittsburgh’s chances to the outside. Even though shutdown defenseman Kevin Klein will return for Game 1, it will be far more difficult to keep the Caps’ power play quiet.
Washington has the ability to flat-out dominate in man-advantage situations. The Caps’ power play finished the regular season first overall at 25.3 percent. Ovechkin can fire cannon shots from anywhere, even when off-balance. Nicklas Backstrom is arguably the league’s most outstanding playmaker.
The Caps went a perfect 14-for-14 on the penalty kill last series against all-world center John Tavares and the Isles.
RANGERS X-FACTOR: MARTIN ST. LOUIS
With Zuccarello out, Vigneault has bumped up St. Louis to the top line alongside Rick Nash and Brassard. Vigneault is counting on St. Louis to raise his game. The 39-year-old winger averaged 17:50 TOI in five first-round games against the Penguins, but only managed one assist and did not score a goal.
“All our guys have to be better,” Vigneault said. “Marty’s one of those guys. Considering the fact that Zucc’s not going to be available, (he’s) considered one of our offensive players. He’s got experience being in these pressure moments, big games. We’re gonna need him to help us lead the way.”
The previous series against Pittsburgh was a very tight-checking series where neither team had much room to operate. St. Louis will have a chance to bounce back against the Caps. He has collected 84 points (41 goals, 43 assists) in 93 career playoff games – a rate of 0.90 points per game.
CAPS X-FACTOR: EVGENY KUZNETSOV
Kuznetsov broke out in the first round, notably scoring the series winner that sent the Isles packing. The 22-year-old Russian finished the series with three goals and one assist in seven games. Kuznetsov’s game oozes with natural skill, confidence and poise.
“From Day 1, I was shocked by how mature he was, how well-spoken,” Caps defenseman John Carlson said. “He came in, call him what you want, but he was one of the most talented players in the league as soon as he got here. I don’t think it took him long to adjust to this style of game. I’m just happy for him because you could tell from day one that he wanted to do whatever it took to win, not just for himself but for us.”
Brassard is known for keeping a close eye on the entire league. He sees Kuznetsov as one of the game’s bright young talents.
“He’s one of the best prospects in the NHL for a long time,” Brassard said. “I think he’s really coming along as a player. Really dynamic, really good speed. We’re just gonna have to play him really hard.”
PREDICTION: RANGERS WIN IN SIX
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