The potentially decisive factors as the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals meet in the playoffs for the fifth time since 2009.
Regular season recaps
March 11: Rangers 3, Capitals 1
March 29: Capitals 5, Rangers 2
April 11: Rangers 4, Capitals 2
Rangers: RW Mats Zuccarello (suspected concussion, indefinite), D Keith Yandle (soreness, day-to-day)
Capitals: C Eric Fehr (upper body, day-to-day)
Keys to a Rangers victory
This series will mark the fifth time the Capitals have met the Rangers in the playoffs since 2009, more than any other combination of teams in this year’s tournament. While the Caps won the first two meetings in 2009 and 2011, the Rangers knocked Washington out in 2012 and 2013. In this year’s matchup, the Caps will be tested by the best Rangers team in recent memory. But Washington is deep and will give the Rangers a much more difficult test than the depleted Penguins did.
New York allowed only 2.28 goals per game this season, third-best in the NHL. The Rangers neutralized Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the first round, and likewise they’ll look to shut down Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin, who led the team with six and five points, respectively, in the first round against the Islanders. But Ryan McDonagh, Dan Girardi and the rest of the Blueshirts defense corps will be a much greater challenge than the injury-ravaged, patchwork Islanders blue line corps presented.
The Rangers will be without forward Mats Zuccarello, who is out indefinitely after taking a puck to the head in Game 5 vs. the Penguins. New York will miss his energy, but the Blueshirts have plenty of firepower to make up for his absence. Zuccarello’s linemates, Derrick Brassard and Rick Nash, combined for eight points in the first round. Both players excelled against the Capitals this season.
The series could be decided by special teams. While the Rangers successfully killed 84.3% of their penalties in the regular season—sixth best in the NHL—the Capitals’ power play recorded a league-best 25.3% scoring rate. Washington produced only two power play goals in the first round, in part due to a measly 13 opportunities in the seven games, but the Caps also didn’t allow the Islanders a single man advantage goal. The Rangers, meanwhile, were just 3-for-20 on the power play against the Pens. Coach Alain Vigneault’s club would do well to avoid the penalty box.
In net, Henrik Lundqvist had a relatively easy time in the first round, facing an average of only 23.5 shots through the first four games, though he was peppered by Penguins with 38 in Game 5, still making 37 saves. The Capitals, who averaged 31.6 shots per game against the Isles, will challenge Lundqvist more frequently but they'll have to work hard to dent him and New York's potentially stifling defense.
Keys to a Capitals victory
Against the Islanders, the Capitals’ top two lines shined. They will have to continue their strong play against the Rangers to have a shot at advancing. Though top-line forwards Ovechkin, Backstrom and Joel Ward all had negative plus-minus ratings in the first round, the trio was very productive offensively, combining for six goals. Ovechkin scored five against the Rangers this season, more than he tallied against any other team.
The play of the Washington’s second line forwards—Evgeny Kuznetsov, Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson—will be critical against the Rangers, who only surrendered one goal to the Penguins four of their five first-round games. The 22-year-old Kuznetsov in particular emerged for the Capitals against the Islanders, scoring three goals in the final three games of the series, including the dazzling series-winner in Game 7. If he stays hot he’ll give the Caps another potent weapon that takes some of the burden off Ovechkin and Backstrom.
Considering the Rangers’ defensive strength and the presence of a healthy Lundqvist, who has frustrated the Capitals in the teams' last two playoff series, Washington must also be sound defensively against a New York team that was a league-best +60 this season. If their relentlessly rugged performance in Game 7 against the Islanders was any indication, the Capitals are ready to mount a serious challenge to the Presidents’ Trophy winners. Washington limited the Islanders to just 11 shots, and New York’s only goal came on a Braden Holtby miscue.
The Caps played a physical game against the Isles, and they’ll have to exhibit the same level of intensity against the Rangers while keeping it clean. They were lucky to dodge a potentially costly major cross-checking penalty on Ovechkin in the series finale. Holtby’s play will also be decisive, and the young goaltender’s 1.63 goals against average versus the Isles should give the Capitals more confidence.
The Caps are coming off an impressive opening round victory, and despite the physical nature of that series, Washington is healthy entering Game 1 at Madison Square Garden against the Rangers. Both Washington and New York possess great firepower, and have shown their defensive aptitude in the postseason. Like three of the previous four Rangers-Capitals postseason matchups since 2009, expect this to be a long series between two very balanced, well-coached squads. Tiebreaker goes to King Henrik: Rangers in 7.
Capitals 2, Rangers 1
Rangers 3, Capitals 2
Capitals 1, Rangers 0
Capitals 2, Rangers 1
Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)
Rangers 4, Capitals 3
Rangers 2, Capitals 1 (OT)