NHL 2nd Round Preview: Washington-NY Rangers

The East’s #1 seed New York Rangers comes off their Game 7 survival against Ottawa to begin conference semi-final action against #7 seed Washington, off their own gut-wrenching seven-game series triumph over Boston. The Rangers-Caps series starts in Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon and TheSportsNotebook previews the battle of the East Coast’s two biggest media markets…

Braden Holtby is the biggest X-factor possible in the playoffs right now. The 22-year-old Caps goalie, with just five games played this season and third string on the depth chart of a team lacking in quality goaltending, took full advantage of his chance to play when injuries moved him into the spotlight. In spite of being exposed to 35 shots a game, Holtby enabled Washington to win a series where every game was decided by a single goal. Now the issue becomes tightening up that defense. The Capitals cannot seriously expect to survive this round if they allow New York to pepper away at the goal.

The reverse side of this is that New York needs to get its best offensive players the puck in position to score. Marian Gaborik scored 41 goals and had 35 assists during the regular season, but was a non-factor in the Ottawa series, a big reason why a team with no talent could push the East’s best to the brink. Gaborik and Ryan Callahan, the two best scoring forwards need to be active against a suspect Washington defense.

New York also needs to tighten up its own defense. Throughout the season this was an excellent unit, ranking 6th in the NHL at preventing shots, and with a goalie like Henrik Lundqvist to back you up, that adds up to a lot of wins. But Ottawa was able to get 31 shots a night at Lundqvist. Washington is not great at generating shots, but they’ve also shown—both throughout the season and again in the Boston series that they can score at a rate disproportionate to their shot volume. This is a direct consequence of having a player with Alex Ovechkin’s talent in the lineup. The forward was up and down in the first round, just as he was throughout the year. If he stays up throughout this series, there’s no reason the Caps can’t get enough offensive activity going to win this series.

If you look at the seedings and season-long statistics, there’ s not a lot of reason to pick Washington. But we can’t forget that this Caps team is the same group that earned high playoff seedings in previous years. If you’re a baseball fan, think of them like the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals. After winning 100-plus games the previous two years, they only won 83 in ‘06 and barely scraped their way into the playoffs, making it easy to dismiss their ultimate World Series run as a fluke. But it wasn’t. It was a case of a talented team that had underachieved, but got a second chance and took full advantage, and winning a championship in a year they weren’t really supposed to. That could be Washington’s M.O. this time around—and let’s not forget that this year’s Washington team has what previous one’s didn’t, and that’s the hot goalie. 30 is my magic number on this series—if the Caps defense keeps the Rangers under that total on  a shots-per-game average, Holtby puts them in the conference finals. The bet here is that the underdog wins another seven-game thriller.