The Rangers and Capitals finally kickoff their Eastern Conference Quarter Final Series at the Verizon Center, Washington D.C. tonight, 7:30pm Eastern on NBC Sports Network and MSG. The players on both sides are more than ready, and while the two teams have met three of the last four years in the playoffs, there's no real indication as to who might have the upper hand.
Both teams come into tonight's game with strong late season performances. The Rangers with a 10-3-1 record in the month of April, and the Capitals riding an 11-1-1 streak themselves over the same time.
Head to head in the playoffs, the Caps have a 4-3 series advantage in the 7 previous meetings, and have won 2 of the last 3 meetings. The Rangers fought hard to win last year's series against a team that was just as stingy defensively. All but the first game was decided by one goal, and two of the games - both Rangers wins - went to OT.
The difference from last year, is the Capitals are coming into the series a much more confident team. Their offense, while not overwhelming like it was under Bruce Boudreau at times, is still increasingly productive over Dale Hunter's more conservative style. They did struggle in the last month against Ottawa - going 0-1-1 - which may be a little more like the Rangers in style right now, which potentially is a positive for the Rangers.
Offense The Caps scored 46 goals - including 2 empty net goals - in their 13 games, the Rangers topped the league with 51 - 1 empty net goal - in 14 games.
As much that has been made of the Washington offense, the team won only six of their last thirteen games by two or more goals - two of those were two goal wins with an empty net goal. The Rangers had a slightly better record, with seven of their final fourteen games being decided by two or more goals - one of which was a two goal win with an empty net goal.
Alexander Ovechkin was the NHL 1st star for April with 14 goals and 8 assists - Derek Stepan the #3 star with 8 goals and 11 assists. Both teams also had significant secondary contributors on offense:
NYR Ryan Callahan 7 goals and 9 assists Brad Richards 6 goals and 10 assists Rick Nash 9 goals and 5 assists
WAS Nicklas Backstrom 2 goals and 15 assists Mike Green 7 goals and 8 assists Mike Ribeiro 2 goals and 12 assists
Troy Brouwer also has 6 goals in April, but clearly the Ovechkin and Green are the key for the Capitals goal scoring in April.
Defense On defense, the Rangers have been lead by Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh once again, with Marc Staal continuing to be sidelined. The pair have averaged 25:24 and 24:21 of ice time respectively, while Michael Del Zotto (23:10) has picked up much of the slack in ice time due to the loss of Marc Staal. Anton Stralman slots in at 18:04, while John Moore and Steve Eminger have been closer to the 13 minutes a game mark.
One interesting thing to note for the Rangers, is that all six defenders were positive +/- for the month of April, with McDonagh and Stralman a +12 leading the way, Moore +9, Eminger +6 and the duo of Girardi and Del Zotto +1.
The Rangers gave up less than 2 goals a game in April - 27, but were largely pushed by their 5 on 5 production which ended the season 3rd best in the league.
By contrast the Capitals are bit more mixed. Green and Karl Alzner are both -5, Carlsson +10, Olesky +5 and Erskine +1. Which says as much about how the Caps score their points as anything.
Goaltending While much is made about Henrik Lundqvist being the reigning Vezina trophy winner and his form in April with a .934 save percentage and a 10-3-1 record, while allowing 1.76 goals a game on average, Braden Holtby has been no slouch either. He comes into tonight's game with a 9-1-0 record in April, a .937 save percentage and a 2.16 goals against average, though he played four fewer games.
Special Teams Final team rankings can be a bit deceiving, with the Rangers finishing 23rd on the power play with a 15.7 percent conversion rate and the Capitals finishing 1st over all with a more impressive 26.8.
The Rangers were slightly abover average in April, going 9 for 51 at a 17.6 percent conversion rate, but only registered PP Goals in 5 of the 14 games, three coming in a 6-1 blowout of the Penguins. Washingto by contrast went 14 of 41, scoring goals in 7 of their 13 at a rate of 34.14.
The Capitals finished 27th in the league in PK for the season, at 77.9 versus the Rangers' 15th rank of 81.1. Not a big difference really, basically 1 goal extra allowed by the Capitals for every 16 to 17 kills.
On the PK, Washington went 30 of 37 in April while New York went 31 of 37. The Rangers lapsed a little in the last five, giving up 4 goals on 14 penalties, while the Caps have given up just two goals on their last 18 penalties over the final five games.
- and Brayden Holtby has likewise been a stalwart in net, putting up respecable numbers of 2.16 GAA with a .937 Save Percentage, while going 9-1-0 for the month.
For the Rangers, Brian Boyle (knee), Ryane Clowe (leg/concussion?), Marc Staal (eye) and Derek Dorsett (clavicle) are all expected to miss game one, although all could potentially make a return during the series.
For Washington, Joel Ward will be back tonight having missed the last three weeks of the season with a left knee injury. Brooks Laich remains out with a sports hernia.
Much has been made of Washington's form, and their renewed offensive potential, while the same has been said about Henrik Lundqvist and the Rangers defense. In reality, the teams align much more closely, and perhaps current form even indicates the Rangers have a more varied offense than the Capitals, while the Washington net is much better protected than is given credit for.
The primary differences has been how the teams have been getting their offense. The Capitals are more reliant on Ovechkin and Green, and their power play, while the Rangers have had a more distributed attack at 5 on 5. Goaltending has been pretty much a wash, and if both netminders can keep their heads, it'll put the pressure back on the offense.
The Rangers style means they're likely to give up more opportunities than they create, which will mean increased pressure on their off and on power play, and long minutes for Girardi and McDonagh.
This has all the hallmarks of a series that'll go 6 to 7 games, and that seems to be the prevailing opinion from those brave enough to make a prediction. As we've seen in the past though, these types of series can change momentum quickly.
Back in 2009 The Rangers held a 3-1 series lead against the more favored Capitals, before Henrik Lundqvist finally succumbed to the pressure of facing 35-40 shots each game and was pulled in consecutive efforts on the way to a 4-3 series defeat.
Last season the Capitals were less than 60 seconds away from a 3-2 series lead before Joel Ward took a double minor that gave the Rangers a chance, which they then cashed in on for a 3-2 OT win and a 3-2 series advantage to the Rangers going to game 6.
Prediction The Capitals won't be an easy win, but the Rangers perhaps got a late season break by falling into the 6th seed, and have a better chance to get out of the first round with a 4-2 series win.