With the New York Rangers’ 2-1 victory over the Ottawa Senators in last night’s Game 7, the Washington Capitals’ second round opponents were determined. Washington, the #7 seed, is the lowest remaining seed, while the Rangers are the top seed in the East. As far as the regular season match-up goes, though, that differentiation in seeds – New York earn 109 points in the regular season while Washington only earned 92 – is moot. The Caps and the Rangers met four times in the regular season, with each team alternating wins in regulation across the length of the 2011-12 campaign.
Although this season’s results would suggest these teams are evenly matched, the Capitals are hoping that recent playoff history repeats itself. Before this year’s first round series against the Bruins, Washington had won two playoff series in the Alexander Ovechkin era, both over the Rangers. In 2009 the Caps recovered from a 3-1 series deficit to dispatch New York in the first round a thrilling Game 7 on the strength of a Sergei Fedorov slapper, while in 2011 the boys from D.C. took the series in five closely-matched affairs.
In both of those previous series, however, the Caps were heavy favorites despite the presence of perennial all-world goalie Henrik Lundqvist in New York’s net. This time around the tables have turned, and Washington will have to put together an even stronger effort than in the first round to continue their season.
Regular Season Meetings
Game 1 (November 25, 2011): Rangers 6, Capitals 3
The second-to-last game of Bruce Boudreau’s tenure behind the Washington bench was eminently forgettable. After a scoreless first period, the Rangers hung three goals on Caps goalie Michal Neuvirth in a four-minute span early in the second period to set the tone. The Caps pulled within 3-2 on goals by Troy Brouwer and John Carlson before New York extended the lead back to 5-2. A third period goal by Alexander Ovechkin, unfathomably only his 8th of the season to date, before Ruslan Fedotenko potted his second of the game for the final margin. Setting the tone for the season match-up, Dan Girardi played nearly half the game, although he and Lundqvist weren’t tested much, with the Caps registering only 21 shots on net to New York’s 33.
Game 2 (December 28, 2011): Capitals 4, Rangers 1
Perhaps underestimating a slumping Washington after these team’s November meeting, New York coach John Tortorella tapped backup netminder Martin Biron for this late December game and Washington made Biron pay. Though the Caps managed just 23 shots on net, they beat Biron four times en route to victory. Alexander Semin scored his 8th and 9th goals of the season for insurance, after Marcus Johansson opened the scoring in the first period and Brouwer scored his 10th of the season, the eventual game-winner, midway through the second in response to Brandon Dubinsky’s first frame goal. The Caps had to kill two late penalties back-to-back in the third period to preserve the win for then-starting netminder Tomas Vokoun.
Game 3 (February 12, 2012): Rangers 3, Capitals 2
Two days before Valentine’s Day, the Caps and Rangers were perhaps focused more on making dinner reservations than the game of hockey. The third meeting between these two teams was fairly tepid, featuring just four minor penalties and not much in the way of physical play. New York struck early in the first on a goal by Ryan Callahan before Semin knotted things up in the second. After the Rangers took a 2-1 lead later in the middle frame, Brandon Prust’s shorthanded goal 6:26 into the third crushed Washington’s spirit and proved the eventual game-winner, with Carlson’s goal with 2:28 remaining in the third period making the final margin more respectable. Neuvirth again earned the loss, stopping 25 of 28 shots.
Game 4 (April 7, 2012): Capitals 4, Rangers 1
Coming down the stretch run, it looked like this game would be the make-or-break moment for Washington’s playoff hopes. That ended up not being the case, as the Caps clinched a playoff berth days prior, but a game against the Eastern Conference-leading Rangers to close the regular season was still a huge test for the Caps, especially since Braden Holtby was in net for just the 7th time on the season due to injuries suffered by Neuvirth and Vokoun. Holtby played strong, stopping 35 of 36 shots as the Caps struck four times in the first 26 minutes of the game and then retreated into a defensive posture for the remainder of the match. Ovechkin opened the scoring just 32 seconds into the game with his 38th of the season, letting him finish 5th in the NHL in goal-scoring in 2011-12. Mathieu Perreault, Carlson, and Nicklas Backstrom also scored for Washington, while Brian Boyle potted the lone Rangers goal midway through the second.
Troy Brouwer: Three Caps scored more than one goal in the first round: Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, and Brouwer. Both of Brouwer’s goals were clutch – his first strike, in Game 2, broke a scoreless tie in the second period en route to an overtime win, and his second was the late game-winner in Game 5′s 3-2 victory – befitting a man in possession of the shiniest Stanley Cup ring in the Washington locker room (Brouwer won in 2010 with the Chicago Blackhawks). His combination of hustle, willingness to drive the net, and soft hands will be crucial in the second round.
Jay Beagle: When Beagle joined the Capitals in the 2008-09 season, he was basically a bigger, younger Quintin Laing. Even at the start of this season, who could have anticipated the impact Beagle has had on Washington’s playoff success? The young center has evolved into the Cap’s top defensive center, supplanting Jeff Halpern (remember him?) in the process. Beagle’s 62.5% faceoff win percentage is 4th in the NHL this postseason, and he has the lowest offensive zone start percentage of any Washington forward: just 25.6%.
Essentially Capitals head coach Hunter is beginning to utilize Beagle like the player just above him in the faceoff ranking, Vancouver’s Manny Malhotra, as a defensive specialist who takes a large percentage of his team’s defensive zone faceoffs and kills penalties. The fact that Beagle already has one goal this postseason, after scoring only four in 41 games in the regular season, is a bonus.
Henrik Lundqvist: Only arguably the best goaltender in the NHL right now, that’s all. Lundqvist is the presumptive Vezina Trophy winner for his regular season performance – he was announced yesterday as one of the three award finalists – and has been even better in the playoffs, posting a 1.70 GAA and .945 Save% in the first round. Even still, the Rangers needed seven games to defeat the Ottawa Senators, putting heavy pressure on Lundqvist and his defense to continue the outstanding effort if their offense doesn’t wake up. If there’s any netminder in the league capable of meeting those requirements, though, it’s King Henrik. Washington will have to hope that the normally stoic Lundqvist has his previous failures against Washington in his head.
Dan Girardi: One half of New York’s shutdown defensive pairing, along with Ryan McDonagh, Girardi has always played Caps captain Ovechkin tough in their previous meetings. Rangers coach John Tortorella will have a tough decision to make on whether to keep Girardi against Ovechkin or to utilize him and McDonagh to neutralize Washington’ s second line with Nicklas Backstrom (1 goal, 3 assists) and Alexander Semin (3 goals). Much like Beagle, Girardi has also contributed unexpectedly on offense. His four points (1 goal, 3 assists) are tied for second on the team and second among all defensemen these playoffs. When you earn 28:03 TOI/game like Girardi, tops amongst defensemen whose teams are still alive this postseason, you get a plethora of points opportunities.
Mike Knuble: The forgotten man the first three games of the Bruins series, Knuble joined the Caps’ lineup when Backstrom was suspended and has refused to relinquish his spot. His veteran savvy was on full display on Joel Ward’s Game 7 OT winner…sure, Ward shot the puck, but Knuble took the initial shot, drove the net, and pushed Tim Thomas off kilter to allow Ward to score. Knuble was almost criminally underutilized in the first round – his 35:59 of ice through four games was just 2 1/2 minutes more than Mike Green’s TOI in Game 2 alone – but with Washington in the second round, that’s now a boon since Knuble’s 39-year-old legs remain relatively fresh.
John Carlson: Recovering from a sophomore slump to partner with Karl Alzner in Washington’s top defensive pairing, Carlson was also impressively effective against the Rangers on offense this year. In just four games against the Rags, Carlson scored three of his nine goals on the season, two of which were power play markers, and added three assists while averaging 23:29 TOI, over 90 seconds more than his season average. If Hunter decides to move away from the slumping Mike Green or Dennis Wideman at the power play point, there’s no doubt Carlson is chomping at the bit for the opportunity to continue his fantastic efforts against Lundqvist and company.
Chris Kreider: Speaking of fresh legs, the 20-year-old Kreider has just five NHL games to his name, all in the first round. Kreider was New York’s first round pick, 19th overall, in the 2009 NHL Entry Draft, and spent the subsequent three seasons as a member of the Boston College Eagles. After BC won its second NCAA championship in three years on April 7, 2012, the last day of the NHL regular season, Kreider celebrated for a couple days before signing an entry-level contract with the Rangers on April 10. His Eagles only skated 44 games in the 2011-12 season, meaning Kreider has far less mileage on his legs than any other player in the series who wasn’t injured at all.
Kreider was a healthy scratch in New York’s first two games, also earning a roster spot when one of his teammates, Carl Hagelin, was handed a suspension. Although he mostly played in spot duty in his first four appearances, Kreider scored the eventual game-winner in the Rangers’ 3-2 win in Game 6, and was third in TOI in New York’s crucial 2-1 Game 7 win, skating 18:21, behind only superstar Brad Richards and fellow rookie Derek Stepan. Much like Brouwer, Kreider projects as a rough-and-tumble winger with good hands: he was a point-a-game player in his junior year at BC and also lead the Eagles in penalty minutes. More importantly for New York, he’s largely an unknown, providing a significant upgrade at second-line wing over Artem Anisimov at his best. Whether he can maintain the level of play he demonstrated in Game 7 is yet to be determined.
Abram Fox is the Washington Capitals Page Editor for District Sports Page. He has been covering the Capitals from the press box since the 2007-08 season.