Although the Capitals’ magic number to clinch the top seed in the Eastern Conference is now one -- whether a point gained by Washington or a point that the Flyers fail to obtain -- their opponent is still to be determined.
Montreal, Buffalo and the New York Rangers are each separated by a point in sixth, seventh and eighth place, respectively, so the standings could certainly shift. We’ll take a look at each of those teams and how they stack up with the Capitals heading into the final few games of the NHL regular season.
Record: 43-32-5, 91 points
Current seed: Eighth
Remaining schedule: 4/7 vs. Thrashers; 4/9 vs. Devils.
Record vs. Capitals this season: 3-1-0
Over the last few weeks, the Rangers have been the potential opponent that make Capitals fans (and even some media members) flustered. New York is, at its heart, a shot-blocking machine and group of hard-hitters that enjoy the ability to physically wear down and punish an opponent.
Add to those personality traits the ability of goaltender Henrik Lundqvist to frustrate any team, and matching the Rangers’ defensive fortitude will not be easy. Earlier this week, though, New York suffered a significant blow when the team announced that winger Ryan Callahan would be out indefinitely with a broken ankle, sustained by blocking a shot from Bruins defenseman Zdeno Chara.
Callahan said he hopes to possibly play in the postseason should New York advance far enough. Without him, though, the Rangers are devoid of their second-leading goal scorer (23 goals, 48 points) behind
(24 goals, 53 points), and it makes their already-inconsistent offense that much more questionable.
While Callahan’s absence will force the Rangers to adjust, it won’t alter their overall style if they make the playoffs and it won’t completely prohibit them from pushing any opponent into a lengthy first-round series.
Against the Caps: Even though they average 2.74 goals per game, the Rangers pummeled the Capitals twice this year. First, a 7-0 loss on Dec. 12 that was the lowest point of Washington’s eight-game losing streak, preserved forever on HBO’s “24/7.” That was the defeat that sparked Coach Bruce Boudreau to shift the Capitals’ style of play to a more defense-first system.
Then on Feb. 25, a 6-0 thumping at home sent reminders of that time through a Capitals squad performing much better as a whole. It proved to be an anomaly, the final loss before the start of a season-best, nine-game winning streak.
From the beat writer: Jesse Spector from the New York Daily News shares his take on what the Rangers’ biggest question is heading into the playoffs.
Caps fans already know that the Rangers are capable of putting the puck in the net, having witnessed a 7-0 demolition on Dec. 12 in New York and a 6-0 shellacking on Feb. 25 in D.C. So it might seem strange to say it, but the biggest question facing the Rangers heading into the playoffs is about their offense.
Henrik Lundqvist has a career high in shutouts this season, partly because the All-Star goaltender has been on top of his game, but also because of a defense corps that has been bolstered by the strong rookie tandem of Ryan McDonagh and Michael Sauer at times outplaying the shutdown pair of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi. They are a big reason that over a three-game stretch in the heat of the playoff race, the Rangers were able to get five points despite scoring a total of three goals.
And there’s the problem, and the big question for the Rangers. They have a balanced offense, but as good as it can look in scoring 32 goals over a seven-game stretch, they’ll follow that up by treating the red light like a grandfather watching the power bill.
Gaborik, who led the Rangers with 42 goals last season, had an injury-plagued season that was only part of the reason for a severe dropoff in production – too often when he was healthy, it was hard to tell he was on the ice. John Tortorella has often referred to Gaborik as the Rangers’ one player with game-changing talent. If the Rangers’ young guns aren’t scoring in the playoffs, they’ll need him to be – but still don’t know if he’s up to it.