And so they meet again. It’s as though something just can’t keep the Capitals and Rangers apart come springtime, as this series marks the third time in four seasons that the two will face off.
Both teams have changed since their first-round meeting in 2011, though. Here’s a breakdown of how they match up:
New York won the top seed in the East thanks in part to a more balanced attack this season. In the first round, role players stepped up out of necessity, given the three-game suspension to rookie Carl Hagelin and absence of Brian Boyle (concussion). With Hagelin back, the top line with Brad Richards and Marian Gaborik looks to ramp up against Washington.
The rest of the Rangers’ lines can all chip in offensively as well. The second unit, featuring Derek Stepan, Ryan Callahan and Chris Kreider — who was signed right before the postseason began from Boston College – could put a strain on Washington’s defense. Whether Boyle returns from his concussion in this series remains to be seen, and in his absence the shutdown line has become Ruslan Fedotenko and Brandon Prust centered by Brandon Dubinsky.
Twelve different Capitals recorded at least one goal in the first round against Boston, and Washington may need that depth again to advance past New York. The question remaining in this postseason, however, is when a signature performance will come from Alex Ovechkin. The star winger led Washington with five points and scored a pair of goals, but his ice time has been limited as Coach Dale Hunter repeatedly turns to his trusted cadre of two-way forwards in close games. While it’s clear these new team-defense Capitals aren’t as reliant upon Ovechkin as they used to be, getting him going is a surefire way to preoccupy the opposition.
Alexander Semin finished with a team-high three goals and had one of his best all-around series against the Bruins. His linemates, Nicklas Backstrom and Marcus Johansson, have been a little less even, mixing strong play with the occasional ill-advised turnover.
After a strong first round by the bottom six forwards, they’ll be asked to do the same thing this round. Hunter wants defensive responsibility and opponent-eroding cycles from the third and fourth lines, led by breakout shutdown center Jay Beagle, Matt Hendricks, Mike Knuble and first-round hero Joel Ward. Their effectiveness both in ends helped the Capitals outlast the Bruins and could wear down New York as well.
This could be the shot-blocking-palooza to end all shot-blocking-paloozas. New York (155) and Washington (139) are first and second in these playoffs and there’s certain to be a lot of it from everyone, beginning with the blueliners on both sides.
The Capitals’ shutdown pairing of Karl Alzner and John Carlson played beyond their years against Boston – and were on the ice for only four goals each. Roman Hamrlik demonstrated how valuable it is to have a calming, veteran presence on the back end and helped create a serviceable pairing with Mike Green as both players finished tied with a team-high plus-5 rating. Washington’s third pairing of Dennis Wideman and either Jeff Schultz or John Erskine struggled in the first round, though, and can be a liability if trapped in its own end or caught out of position.
New York possesses a similar stratosphere. While Dan Girardi — who has been Alex Ovechkin’s personal shadow the bulk of their careers — and Ryan McDonagh aren’t the physically intimidating pair that Boston’s Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg are, they can be just as effective. Power-play point man Anton Stralman and Marc Staal made strides on both ends of the ice against the Senators, while the final unit of Michael Del Zotto and Stu Bickel was less predictable.
Rookie Braden Holtby already stood up against the tough test of the defending Stanley Cup champions, giving up only 15 goals in seven games for a .940 save percentage and 2.00 goals against average. While Holtby’s contributions to Washington’s success cannot be overstated, it remains to be seen how the 22-year-old will fare as the grind of the postseason continues. He’ll need to be brilliant again.
Among the few netminders with better numbers than Holtby through the first round is New York veteran Henrik Lundqvist (1.70 goals against average, .945 save percentage), who is a finalist for the Vezina and Hart Trophies this season. For all of his accolades, though, Lundqvist is looking to prove himself in the postseason. Lundqvist has never advanced past the second round of the playoffs in his career — nor past the Capitals — and this is the first time he and New York have reached the conference semifinals since 2007-08
More on the Capitals:
— History says it could boom or bust for Caps
— For Caps, second round could be boom or bust
— Ward arrives a hero at Friday’s practice
— Caps to face Rangers in conference semifinals
— Caps are committed to Hunter’s system
— Boswell: Skies clearing for D.C. sports
— Hamilton: Leonsis’s summer is looking better