Let’s not beat around the bush here. This Rangers-Caps series of hockey-poker has a lot at stake for both teams.
Tomorrow night will mark the beginning of the fourth playoff series that the Rangers and Capitals have played in the last five years. Needless to say, these two teams, despite playing in different divisions, know each other fairly well. However, for the couple of seasons, frankly, Alex Ovechkin has not been Alex Ovechkin.
Ovie rolls into the playoffs having awoken from his stasis chamber and has returned to his scoring-at-will-and-laughing-at-you-while-doing-it form. This is not the shell of a player that faced the Rangers last season. His 32 goals came fast and furious towards the end of the season, helping the Caps end their season in glorious fashion.
The bottom line is that these Caps look more like the team from a few years ago that no one wanted to play ever.
The Rangers also finished the season well, going 9-4-1 in April, to solidify a playoff spot. Their game markedly improved after the trade deadline, adding gritty winger, and playoff performer, Ryane Clowe, and replacing some well needed depth by sending Marian Gaborik to Columbus for 3 players.
However, the Rangers come into the playoffs a bit banged up.
Even though he may make an appearance, defenseman Marc Staal will have to wait to rekindle his love affair with dancing on Ovie’s last nerve. Whereas John Moore’s play has been pretty solid, he’s no Staal. That leaves the Rangers unable to put their best shutdown pairing, Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, on the ice together against Ovechkin and his band of merry men. That could spell trouble for a Rangers squad that went through spurts of being almost completely incapable of playing team defense during the regular season.
Henrik Lundqvist also enters the playoffs on a high note. In the last three weeks of the season, he collected his 50th and 51st career shutouts, and his only two this season. Now, some of Hank’s woes came from the Rangers defensive issues, along with the Rangers’ inability to keep possession of the puck. However, Lundqvist HAS looked positively beatable at times. With that said, the Rangers fortunes may not completely rely on Lundqvist any longer, but much of their hope lies in between the pipes for the Blueshirts.
The guy in the big pads for the Caps is no sieve either. Braden Holtby has been impressive this season after rookie coach Adam Oates finally gave him full control of the Washington nets. The Capitals have suffered from the same less-than-average defensive play at times, however, all that changed the last few weeks of the season. Holtby got hot, and the opposition got scared. It also helps that the Caps offensive onslaught started to work correctly.
The Caps have their share of injuries, still missing Brooks Laich and Joel Ward, although Ward could be set to return for Game 1. This, however , is the time for epic battles and epic heroes, and it doesn’t get much bigger than Alex Ovechkin and Rick Nash.
Alex Ovechkin has played in a total of 51 playoff games, and has proven himself to be a post season performer. Rick Nash has only played in a whopping total of four post season games. Obviously, he still has a lot to prove. Here’s the rub – Rick Nash, although he’s saying all the right things, most likely is seething inside every time someone in the press asks him about it. The best players, the truly best ones with the heart of a champion, play their biggest games on the biggest stage. Make no mistake, Rick Nash will take his opportunity to make his mark in this post season, and with that chip on his shoulder and that marvelous toe drag move, he will produce for the Rangers.
Yes, Ovechkin and the Caps are hot, and skilled, and can exert their will on pretty much any team in the league when they get going. Yes, the expectation for these New York Rangers were incredibly high at the beginning of the season, and anything less than a deep playoff run will mark this season as a total disappointment. Here’s what you can expect for this series. There will be a goaltending duel every night. There will be moves from players on both sides that will bring you to your feet. And, once the dust from all the scrums after the whistle, the Rangers will be winners in 6.
Here’s what my colleagues think:
Mitch Tierney: Rangers in 7 – The Rangers have been underachieving all season. That comes to an end in Round One of the playoffs.
Max Vasilyev: Capitals and Rangers have always gave us entertaining series and this should be no different. I will give the nod to the better goaltending and say Rangers in 6.
Ben Kerr: Rangers in 6. Henrik Lundqvist is the difference maker, one of the best goalies in the NHL, he takes the Rangers to the next level. Both teams have looked better down the stretch.
Here’s the schedule:
Game 1: Thursday, May 2, 7:30 PM ET at the Verizon Center; NBC Sports Network, TSN
Game 2: Saturday, May 4, 12:30 PM ET at the Verizon Center; NBC, TSN
Game 3: Monday, May 6, 7:30 PM ET at Madison Square Garden; NBC Sports Network, TSN
Game 4: Wednesday, May 8, 7:30 PM ET at Madison Square Garden; NBC Sports Network, TSN
Game 5 (if necessary): Friday, May 10, 7:30 PM ET at the Verizon Center; TBD, TSN
Game 6 (if necessary): Sunday, May 12, TBD at Madison Square Garden; TBD, TSN
Game 7 (if necessary): Monday, May 13, TBD at the Verizon Center; TBD, TSN
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