Saturday, April 28, 2012

2012 NHL Playoffs - Washington Capitals vs. New York Rangers Preview

Last year, the Capitals bounced the Rangers in five games, though the series was a bit closer than it might seem after the fact. Three years ago, the Caps ousted the Rangers in seven games, and that series was exactly as close as it seems after the fact. So our boys are facing off against New York for the third time in four years; what is there to expect this time around?

The Rich Get Richards

Brad Richards was the jewel of last offseason's free agency, and the Rangers were the favorite to sign him. So while it was no surprise when New York picked him up, the consensus in hockey was that this team just catapulted up the power rankings. Many people (including myself) had them finishing first or second in the vaunted Atlantic Division, and they ended up finishing with the best record in the Eastern Conference, due in no small part to Richards.

These playoffs, Richards has continued to be productive, posting 5 points in their seven game series with the Ottawa Senators. Perhaps most notable is that 4 of those points came on Rangers power plays. If the Capitals are going to win the series, they'll need to make sure not to take bad penalties (against a team with considerable skill in drawing them), and when they do find themselves short-handed, they've got to clamp down, block shots, and hold out for reinforcements.

New Era Caps

When the Capitals fired Bruce Boudreau back in late November, Dale Hunter was expected to bring a very different style of play to Washington. Early on, that "style of play" seemed to be just scoring less goals, and the Caps had to scramble to even make the playoffs after back-to-back #1 seeds in the East.

I can tell you, at least from a fan's perspective, being the #7 seed is very different from being the #1 seed. The games are just as exciting, and your reaction to individual goals is still the same. But the overall mentality between games is completely different. The past three years, I'd been stressed, worried, and afraid of what every game was going to bring  This year, while of course there's still stress, there's also some excitement. And now that the Caps are into the second round after a big upset, the excitement is continuing to overshadow the worry. Not that I don't like locking up a playoff spot early, but rooting from down here is probably a lot better for you.

The Goalie vs. Holtby

Henrik Lundqvist had a fantastic season, and he's a nominee for both the Vezina and Hart trophies, and I think he'll win the Vezina (predictions on trophies will come later). He's got six straight seasons of at least 35 wins, and has been considered among the league's best for years. By contrast, Braden Holtby has 21 career NHL games (in which he's 14-4-3). Each of them is coming off of a grueling seven-game series in which they had to single-handedly save games at certain points. Lundqvist's save percentage was .945; Holtby's was .940. Holtby faced the most shots in the first round of any goaltender at 248, though Lundqvist was peppered as well, facing 217 shots.

I don't know how to look beyond the stats with goalies, because so much of goalie play relies on defense, and because a lot of goalie stats rely on the play of the opposing offense; if they take a lot of bad shots, a goalie can rack up a ton of easy saves. All I can say is that Holtby is playing like an elite goalie with some not-so-good defensemen in front of him (Mike Green is a shadow of his old is Dennis is Roman Hamrlik).

The Last Word

Listen, I don't know a ton about hockey. I'm still unsure of the rules on faceoffs (I'd be delighted if someone would teach me about them), and I know I miss stuff developing or not developing because of a play made or missed by this guy or that guy. But I also know that experts don't know all that much about hockey either, or about any sport. Because most people (including me) picked the Penguins to win it all this year. Because most people (including me) expected the Canucks to oust the Kings. Because most of us figured the Patriots would obliterate the Giants in the 2007 Super Bowl. Because, because, because.

I see a Capitals team here that can match defenses with any team in the East (Nashville and St. Louis are frighteningly good). And I know the Caps have as much offensive talent as anybody in hockey. To top it all off, Braden Holtby is playing like a goalie of legend. The Rangers are a damn good team, but the Caps just beat a damn good team.

I've got the Capitals over the Rangers in six games.


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