The Washington Capitals have pulled the New York Rangers for their opponent in the second round of the playoffs (check the schedule here). This will be the sixth time in history that the Caps and Rangers will square off in a best-of-seven series. But unlike recent years, the Rangers are no underdogs. They finished in first place in the Eastern Conference, just barely missing the President’s Trophy after a loss to some no-name team in the final game of the regular season. Meanwhile the Caps are the scrappy team that no one expected to slay the dragon in round one. It’s going to be a big series between two old Patrick Division rivals.
In preparation, we peaked back at last year’s quarterfinal series between the Caps and Rangers in hopes that it might give us a glimpse at the future. No matter their predictive value, these five games were a freaking blast. Join me for some good memories behind the jump.
The first game of the series was a tense one. Going nearly 80 minutes, the Rangers and Caps played tight hockey until Marc Staal made a mistake and Jason Arnott made him pay. Arnott set up special friend Alex Semin for an emotional game winner. Glimpsing a ye olde stat sheet, the Caps dominated possession (plus-19 Fenwick), firing 33 shots on Lundqvist. The Caps cap’n alone had 6 shots, 6 hits, and a goal. It was just brilliant playoff hockey and a rousing start to the postseason.
* ESS% = goalie save percentage while teams are at even strength. Fenwick sums up one team’s shots and misses at even-strenth, subtracted by the other team’s sum of the same.
Michal Neuvirth was the star of game two, shutting the door on the Rangers and their 22 shots. Jason Arnott and Jason Chimera recorded goals for the Caps, and John Tortorella dressed Sean Avery, who is unemployed now. The Caps completely suffocated the Rangers, keeping them without a scoring chance for the entirety of the second period. This was the most conservative game of the series, with most of the action going on at neutral and on the perimeters. The Caps left for Manhattan with a two-game lead.
The Rangers stole the first game at their home rink, but they had to get pretty luck to do it. Although it’s inelegant to whine about penalties a year later, the Rags got all the good whistles this game– putting the Caps shorthanded 7 times and converting on one of those. But the truly bad luck was Brandon Dubinsky‘s freak bounce off Karl Alzner’s shoulder and into Mikey Neuvirth’s net with less than 100 seconds left. This was the Caps’ first regulation loss with Jason Arnott in the lineup; that’s how good this team was last spring.
After the game coach Bruce Boudreau commented on how quiet Madison Square Garden was. New York fans kept that comment in mind.
This one belongs in the pantheon of classic Caps games. The Capitals played garbage hockey for two periods, earning a three-goal deficit and a potential shutout for Henrik Lundqvist. And then, in the third, the Capitals played what might have been the best period of hockey in the history of the franchise. Alex Semin stole a loose puck to score, and then Marcus Johansson scored two goals to force overtime. And then, in the fifth period, Jason Chimera crashed the net and corralled a rambunctious puck for the game-winner.
Meanwhile, Mike Knuble missed action while getting pins installed in his broken hand. And the fans at Madison Square Garden gave the Caps hell all game long, although something about Chimera’s 2OTGWG seemed to hush them at the very end.
The Capitals ended the series at home in a rout. The Rangers’ orderly facade slipped into psychosis as the team was whistled for four roughing penalties, two misconducts, and one “abuse of officials” (i.e. Torts getting torty with the refs). Michal Neuvirth maintained a shutout until the game’s final minute. Alex Ovechkin, Semin, and Green each solved Lundqvist and put this one safely out of reach. The Caps cruised to the second round of the playoffs, which we will never discuss again.
And Verizon Center erupted into “we are louder” cheers.
This year’s model of the Washington Capitals doesn’t come with the automatic puck-possession advantage that meant so much in the last series. The Rangers will have the puck more this year (although they’re only slightly better on the Fenwick scale), so the Caps will have compensate in another area.
Plus, the Rangers ranked fourth in the league in blocked shots this season– both a capable mitigation of their problems owning the puck and an affirmation of their team unity. Blueshirts will be diving in front of Washington pucks like it’s going out of style, so a little creativity on offense will be needed.
Whatever criticisms you may have for Michal Neuvirth, he acquitted himself excellently in the 2011 NYR series. Braden Holtby will have to be similarly perfect to outduel Henrik Lundqvist, who is probably in his Vezina year. Here’s hoping Holtby can keep his .940 save percentage alive.
The Caps are going to need star power in net to eke out wins, but they’re also gonna need star power on offense. The last series saw most of its goals come from the big names: Alex Ovechkin, Alex Semin, and Mike Green. With even less scoring depth than last year, the 2012 Caps will rely on their big players to produce.
No Sean Avery. Haha. As if that were ever a factor. But the Rangers have improved their offense with the addition of Brad Richards, who has been a force multiplier for Marian Gaborik. The Caps defense will have a greater challenge this time around.
But who are we kidding? This series– like the last one— will come down to one question: Who is more willing to crash the net?