One of the questions entering the Rangers-Capitals series was the Rangers ability to contain Alexander Ovechkin. The Rangers top defensive pair of Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi had managed to contain Sidney Crosby in round one and it lead to a rather easy five-game victory.
Ovechkin was a different challenge and one that the Rangers had managed fairly well during the regular season. During their tightly fought second-round victory, the Rangers managed to get the McDonagh/Girardi pairing out against Ovechkin when playing at home and were backed by Derek Stepan. The trio kept him in check at even strength and special teams.
The Rangers-Capitals series was extremely close and ultimately decided by one goal (as have the last 14 Rangers playoff games). When you have one of the greatest goaltenders of all-time in Henrik Lundqvist, you can get away with flirting with disaster to this degree. Lundqvist turned his play up over the final two games as the Capitals went from playing behind most of the series, to dominating the final two games.
Up to that point, Holtby had been the King’s equal, but while Holtby faded to slightly below average in the final two games, Lundqvist raised his level and ultimately, that was the difference.
The Lightning, who won all three games against the Rangers during the regular season, pose the next threat to the Blueshirts’ Cup hopes. Tampa Bay is a fast team that is aggressive in controlling the neutral zone and their footspeed can cause issues for defenses. They also have a dynamic superstar in Steven Stamkos, who will likely get a steady dose of McDonagh and Girardi.
The Rangers’ depth advantage may also be challenged by the Lightning’s red-hot second line of Tyler Johnson, Nikita Kucherov and Ondrej Palat, who will likely match up with Marc Staal and a combination of the Rick Nash line and the Kevin Hayes line.
The Lightning have been strong at even strength, but where they shined against the Canadiens was on special teams. They dominated the royal road on the power play and limited their exposure on the penalty kill.
The danger in facing talents like Ovechkin and Stamkos is that cross-seam feed to the left faceoff dot that Ovechkin and Stamkos have dominated over the last two seasons. I studied both their power play setups for Sportsnet and when left unattended they are absolutely deadly.
“Look at where Stamkos positions himself. He rotates through the left side and occasionally settles in the low left slot, but the majority of his focus is on finding open space for Victor Hedman and (before the Rangers trade) Martin St. Louis to locate him for one-timer opportunities. Stamkos’s clean percentage of shots drops to 64 percent as he goes from relying on lateral feeds from 12 to 27 percent of the time. (It is very similar to the power play deployment that rejuvenated Ovechkin’s goal-scoring ability.)”
In the playoffs, it becomes more difficult to expose well-coached teams to this type of set play and it’s one of the reasons Stamkos has not been scoring at his regular rate. So far in the playoffs, Stamkos has managed to get off only one of these shots.
However, the Lightning are still managing to get this high-quality opportunity by slightly altering their setup and exposing it on the right side (see chart below). Sixteen of their 73 power-play shots have been preceded by a pass. They continue to have strong power-play success (18% in postseason) because of their impeccable movement and passing lane manipulation.
In contrast, the Rangers have been superb and really limited the Capitals from using the Ovechkin spot. Through two rounds they have conceded only three of these types of seam passes. The McDonagh-Girardi-Stepan-Fast unit has been able to close up the box and seal these dangerous passing lanes to great success. As the Rangers continually play one-goal games, the margin for error becomes razor thin and shutting down the Tampa power play becomes imperative to their championship hopes.
If the McDonagh/Girardi penalty kill unit can insulate Lundqvist from this type of high-quality assault, then the series moves to even strength. With Ben Bishop offering up plenty of gifts to the Red Wings and Canadiens through two rounds, the Rangers just need to play 50-50 at even strength and let Lundqvist bridge the gap.
The Rangers have a major advantage in goal so they need to tread water at even strength. If they can limit the Tampa Bay power play to exterior red shots with minimal pre-shot movement, they should be able to return to the Stanley Cup Final.