Photo credit: Greg Fiume
Saturday night revealed the Capitals’ playoff foe, and that foe is really, really familiar.
The New York Rangers locked up the 6-seed and will be headed to Washington early this week to begin the quarterfinal round. This will be the seventh time the teams have met and the third time RMNB will have written about a WSH-NYR series. The John Tortorella Rangers are a shot-blocking, workaday-type crew– but this year they’ve added convincing possession to the mix (they’re ranked sixth in unblocked shot attempts at even strength when the score is close). The Rangers may be a better match-up for the Caps than the Senators (whose Craig Anderson posted the best goalie stats this year) and the Isles (whose John Tavares is a convincing young star), but the Rags are no slouch either.
If you’re already anxious, you’re not alone. But this is the playoffs, where the gentle hum of anxiety is your stalwart dance partner.
Like I said above, NYR directs 53.81% of shots at the enemy’s net, whereas the Capitals tilt the ice against them with just 47.85% possession. That could be trouble in facing a goalie like Henrik Lundqvist, who can be trusted to stop 92% of shots with some regularity.
Montreal blog Habs Eyes on the Prize illustrated how that puck possession correlates with postseason success. The top-right quadrant are very low-possession teams, who never make the postseason. The top-left, where the Caps fit in, contains slightly stronger teams, but ones who rarely go far in the playoffs and have won just one Cup out of 70 attempts (and I’d put an asterisk on that winner if I could). The bottom-left quadrant is strong possession teams, who make the postseason with regularity and often make it far. And the bottom-right is full of the rare ice-tilting crazies, who are your perennial favorites to win. You might wanna zoom in on this one.
The Caps would be at top-left, and the Rangers at bottom-left.
This week will see Rick Nash return to postseason play for the first time since 2009. In his 10-year career, Nash has played just 4 playoff games. The Jackets got swept by the Wings that year. He’ll be eager to produce in a Game That Matters– though the raw shock of playing hockey in the month of May might be enough to confuse him into irrelevance, which will at least be fun to watch.
Unlike the Caps-Rangers series this year. As J.P. pointed out last night, the Caps couldn’t beat the Rangers this year except by the shootout. (Point of order: there are no shootouts in the postseason.) Those games were punishing to watch.
On February 1, the Caps got some excellent ‘tending from Braden Holtby (20 shots against in the first period alone), but the offense was MIA. The March 10th loss was one of the worst games of the season, possibly due to Mike Milbury’s inane jeremiad during intermission. The March 21st shootout win was the first time I was willing to consider the Caps making the postseason— although they did surrender a two-goal lead in that one.
That triad of games isn’t by itself encouraging for the Caps’ chances next week, but there are some reasons to feel bullish.
The Capitals’ magic bean, an extraordinarily effective power play, will be crucial to a win– but getting those penalties might be a problem. The Rangers were one of the least penalized teams in the league this year– going shorthanded just 148 times compared to the Caps’ 163. Once a man-down, the Rangers killed 81.1%– right around league average. The opposite (inverse? contrapositive?) is also important: Washington’s PK is in the league’s bottom-5 at 78%, although New York isn’t quite deadly on their own power play, converting just 15.7% of the time– the 8th worst conversion rate in the league.
Of course, the secret to the power play is getting them in the first place. Drawing penalties usually requires that your team has possession of the puck and is doing something scary with it. This will sound trite, but it’s true: the Capitals’ clearest path to victory is based on shot volume– putting as many shots a possible on Lundqvist with traffic up front fighting for rebounds and drawing penalties. Once penalties are drawn, the Caps need only feed on Adam Oates‘ magic trough of power play oats. Adam’s oats.
Speaking of Adam, though the Caps and Rags will be meeting for the third time in recent memory, this will be the third head coach we’ll see behind Washington’s bench. Bruce Boudreau’s trap-Caps made quick work of New York in 2011 when Jason Chimera delivered the fatal blow. And just one year ago, Dale Hunter’s coin-toss Caps lost their final toss in a taut, seven-game series. The 2013 Capitals may share some personnel with those earlier iterations, but this is not the same team.
The Oates Caps are still inchoate, still defining their identity. They’re dynamic on the breakout, deliberate in zone entry, and devastating on the power play– but those are conclusions drawn from the scant evidence of a 48-game season. If the Caps are overly reliant on their top line and the man-advantage to score, then this may be an un-fun series. If the Caps expect to score one goal for every ten shots on net, they may be disappointed.
You’ve probably heard this part before, but I’m certain the Caps can win this if they crash the net. It’ll take secondary scoring, a deluge of shots from Alex Ovechkin, Braden Holtby playing like we know he can, Mike Green at 100% health, and a whole lotta dirty goals from guys like the Wagon– unafraid to plant themselves in New York’s paint and scrap for the puck. It can be done.