Here are my position by position matchups for the Rangers-Capitals series.
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Capitals — Not many teams have the skill up front that the Capitals possess. Alex Ovechkin, though having a down season (32 goals, after scoring 52, 46, 65, 56 and 50 in his first five seasons), is the most dangerous player in the series. But the Capitals have loads of talent around him in linemates Nicklas Backstrom (65 points) and ex-Ranger Mike Knuble, and on other lines — Alexander Semin, Brooks Laich, ex-Devil Jason Arnott — and some grinders like Matt Bradley.
Rangers — Didn’t have a single player with more than the 24 goals or 54 points Brandon Dubinsky scored. Second-leading scorer Marian Gaborik had the worst year of his carer (22 goals), and third-leading scorer Ryan Callahan, a do-everything guy for the Rangers, is out with a broken ankle. But the Rangers have a lot of their trademark grind up front in Dubinsky, Brandon Prust, Brian Boyle, Ruslan Fedotenko, Vinny Prospal and captain Chris Drury, just back from knee surgery, who will have to replace some of Callahan’s minutes, blocked shots and penalty kills. Their more skilled guys will have to step up — not only Gaborik, but Artem Anisimov and rookie Derek Stepan, plus Wojtek Wolski, Erik Christensen and, if he plays, Mats Zuccarello.
Capitals — Mike Green, their best offensive D-man, is expected to return from a concussion caused by Stepan earlier in the season, but Dennis Wideman (10 goals, nine of them on the power play) is questionable with an injury. The Capitals D has improved in the second half of the season, after coach Bruce Boudreau put in a more defense-conscious system.
Rangers — Marc Staal and Dan Girardi will get the assignment of handling Ovechkin and Co. Staal, particularly, raises his game in these games and relishes the challenge — Ovechkin didn’t score a goal against the Rangers this season. Rookies Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh have been as good as the first pair down the stretch. Maybe better.
Capitals — Boudreau named Michal Neuvirth his Game 1 starter. Varlamov relieved Jose Theodore in the ‘09 series and shut down the Rangers as the Capitals came back from a 3-1 deficit to win. It wouldn’t be a stretch to imagine the Capitals using both. Neither is playoff-proven.
Rangers — Henrik Lundqvist. End of story. He’s one of the best goalies in the league, and he’s playing the best hockey of his career in starting the last 26 games to get the Rangers into the playoffs. Nobody’s more motivated, and the spread-out nature of the series should ensure that he’s well rested.
Capitals — Washington’s power play was, surprisingly, just 16th in the NHL at 17.5 percent this season, in part because of Ovechkin’s output (seven PPGs), in part because of Green’s injury. The Capitals use their skill as a weapon on the penalty kill (85.6 percent, second in the league), aggressively hunting the puck and forcing opposition point men to be wary of an odd-man breakout.
Rangers — their power play only seemed to be the worst in the NHL, though it was actually only 18th at 16.9 percent. But it wasn’t good. There is no real QB, though they rented a shooter in Bryam McCabe, and with Gaborik’s struggles, the power play is terribly inconsistent. The Rangers ranked 10th in penalty killing (83.7 percent) and actually scored more short-handed goals (11-7) than Washington, with Prust scoring five.
Capitals — Bruce Boudreau, revealed to be a foul-mouthed but smart coach during HBO’s reality show “24/7” showed some guts by implementing a better defensive scheme during the season as the Caps struggled. But he really needs to win this series.
Rangers — John Tortorella might not win the Jack Adams as coach of the year, only because the Rangers finished eighth on the season’s final day. But nobody did a better job than he did while sticking to the plan to build for tomorrow while trying to win today. And he’s won a Stanley Cup, in 2004, with Tampa Bay.
Capitals — Ovechkin should be motivated to atone for his season production, and he sure gets pumped for the Rangers. In the ‘09 playoffs he brazenly sat on their bench while they practiced, this year be challenged and fought Dubinsky at center ice. But does Washington have the jam to win a series under this pressure, after been elminated in Game 7 losses at home three years in a row (two in the first round, one in the second round), including a 1 vs. 8 first-round series in which it led 3-1 against Montreal last year? Will negative thoughts creep in with a Game 1 loss, or any type of adversity? Not to mention a bad outing from either goalie?
Rangers — Good playoff teams win on the road (the Rangers won 24), play a grinding, physical game and block shots (all of those things being Rangers staples). The Rangers are together and resilient, they have answered almost every piece of adversity with a strong bounceback. They have played their best against the better teams — they beat Washington three times; in the final month beat Philadelphia, Boston and Pittsburgh twice each; and beat each of the top two teams in the stronger West, Presidents’ Trophy winner Vancouver, and San Jose, plus defending Cup champ Chicago.
PREDICTION: Rangers in six.