Alain Vigneault’s Rangers won this season’s series with Washington, 3-1, outscoring the Capitals, 13-10, in those four games. The Rangers beat the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games, while it took Washington seven games to eliminate the Islanders.
But now it’s a clean slate, with a chance they could play seven more head-to-head.
Here are the matchups:
Alex Ovechkin (five playoff points) and Niklas Backstrom (team-leading six points, three goals) are the straws that stir Washington’s drink. Ovechkin, 29, a three-time Hart Trophy winner now nominated for a fourth time, scored 53 goals this season to win the Maurice (Rocket) Richard Trophy as the NHL’s top goal scorer for the third straight year and the fifth time in his career. Backstrom, 27, had 78 points, including 60 assists, and was snubbed from the All-Star Game. Washington has plenty of weight up front, and three goals from young center Evgeny Kuznetsov, 22, were huge in the first round against the Islanders. But Ovechkin and Backstrom make the Caps tick. . . . Rick Nash, an MVP candidate through 65 games, must match Ovechkin’s excellence. The Rangers could be without injured top-line right wing Mats Zuccarello (two playoff points) for the entire series, so they’ll need the trio of scoring leader Nash (four points), center Derick Brassard (four points, team-leading three goals) and Martin St. Louis (one assist) to produce without draining their depth. Jesper Fast has plenty of experience playing with Carl Hagelin and Kevin Hayes on the third line, but James Sheppard must keep the fourth line with Tanner Glass and Dominic Moore effective after being scratched in the first round.
Washington’s greatest personnel improvement has been on defense. Poaching Matt Niskanen and Brooks Orpik from the Pittsburgh Penguins in free agency gave the Caps a formidable blue line that already featured John Carlson, Karl Alzner and Mike Green. Then in February the Caps traded for third-pair brute Tim Gleason, who delivered what the Rangers’ Glass called one of the hardest punches he’s ever taken in a fight on April 11 in D.C. The Rangers, however, boast the NHL’s best all-around blue line led by the top pairing of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi. Kevin Klein’s imminent return eventually will reassemble a second lock-down unit with Marc Staal, and their defensive prowess is complemented by the puck movement and physical play of deadline acquisition Keith Yandle, and the improved first-round battle level of veteran Dan Boyle.
Henrik Lundqvist used to be the guy routinely starting 70-plus games, but Washington’s Braden Holtby was the NHL’s greatest workhorse this season, starting a league-high 73 matches and posting an impressive 41-20-10 record, 2.22 goals-against average and .923 save percentage in a career year. Holtby, 25, also was the goalie in the Caps’ previous two playoff run-ins with the Rangers that both stayed close and went seven games. One could argue he’s been overworked. One also could argue that he’s never played better. He had a 1.63 GAA and a .943 save percentage in the first round against the Islanders. . . . Lundqvist, 33, though, has 97 all-time postseason appearances (a franchise high) compared to Holtby’s 27, and his first-round 1.53 goals-against average and .939 save percentage were absurd numbers, especially considering his long layoff due to injury from Feb. 4 through March 26. Including the regular season and playoffs, Lundqvist has a 9-3-0 record since returning from injury. And he played just 46 regular-season (30-13-3) games, so he’s rested. Who would you want in your net?
Alex Ovechkin and the Capitals enter their series with the Rangers with the best regular season power play.
The Rangers’ Alain Vigneault ranks 19th in NHL coaching history with 520 regular-season wins, and he boasts a .592 career points percentage. The Capitals’ Barry Trotz is 13th all-time with 602 regular-season wins but has a lower points percentage (.538), and his postseason record of 23-34 in 57 games — mostly with Nashville — pales compared to Vigneault’s 54-54 mark in 108 playoff games — the bulk of them with the Vancouver Canucks. Trotz’s Predators did take Vigneault’s Canucks to six games in the second round of the 2011 playoffs. All but one of the games were decided by one goal, including one in overtime and one in double OT. The Rangers’ Glass, though, said all he remembers about that series is that then-Vancouver center Ryan Kesler “dominated.” Vigneault’s three Presidents’ Trophies and 2007 Jack Adams Award as coach of the year speak for themselves, but Trotz is revered in the league as one of the game’s best and most underrated minds.
The Rangers had the better regular-season penalty kill (84.3 %, sixth in NHL) compared to the Capitals’ 14th-ranked unit at 81.2%, but Washington had the league’s best power play (25.3%), dwarfing the Rangers’ 21st-ranked man advantage at 16.8%. Plus, the Caps’ PK went a perfect 14-for-14 in the first round against the Islanders, as the Rangers (11-for-13) held steady at 84.6% against the Pittsburgh Penguins. Washington’s power play stalled at 2-for-13 in the first round (15.4%) against the Isles, not much better than the Rangers’ (3-for-20, 15%). But don’t kid yourself: With the Caps’ penalty kill also in tip-top shape, special teams is their key to winning this series.
Washington will make it difficult just like Pittsburgh did, but just like that first-round matchup, close games won’t mean a close series (even without Zucc).
RANGERS IN 5
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