Rangers-Capitals Series Preview & Prediction

Dave Maloney, Steve Valiquette, EJ Hradek and Al Trautwig break down what to watch for in the Rangers-Capitals series and why the Blueshirts will win it.

When the Capitals invade Madison Square Garden on Thursday night, they’ll be bringing a superior slogan along with them.

“Go through the battle instead of going around it!”

As the curtain lifts on the second playoff round, the Rangers will join the fray with something more than a catchy theme — a better team.

Then again, the more talented team doesn’t always win; sometimes toughness prevails. That’s why the Washingtonians will bring a new, punishing element to the series and Alain Vigneault‘s skaters had best be prepared for it.

The “it” also is known in Brooklyn and other places as pow, right in the kisser.

Since hockey is a war-game on ice, Caps coach Barry Trotz’s troops appear to subscribe to the “All’s fair in love and, especially, war.” And that’s how they won the attrition war against the Islanders.

Belligerent Tom Wilson took Isles D-Man Lubomir Visnovsky out of the series with a whack that merited a game misconduct and a hearing before the NHL dirty play judges. It did neither, but gave the Caps a big advantage.

Then, Troy Brouwer finished Calvin de Haan’s series in Game 5 with a boppo that would get the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval for thunderous checks.

And I haven’t even gotten to Alex Ovechkin, the leading NHL scorer who doubles as a human bulldozer.

Which raises the first question: how will the Rangers bop with these brutes?

Answer: See below in the upcoming analysis of these two worthy teams:

OFFENSE

Against Pittsburgh, the New York offense was offensive. Winning every game by a single goal hardly overwhelms anyone but the defensemen. Still, sooner or later in this new series Rick Nash should flash his regular-season form. Meanwhile, Mr. Huge has been unselfish with the puck and created opportunities for his buddy-guard, Derick Brassard. With peripatetic Mats Zuccarello¬†indefinitely sidelined with an “upper-body injury,” there’s no immense concern about replacing him. Future Hall of Famer Marty St. Louis will snugly move in while large James Sheppard will take MSL’s spot.

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The All-American Line of Chris Kreider-Derek Stepan-J.T. Miller has all the speed-size ingredients for a bust-out series while Carl Hagelin-Kevin Hayes-Sheppard offer a heartening support system. New York’s fourth-liners, headed by ace utility forward Dominic Moore, can match anything dispatched by Trotz.

Powered by Ovechkin, Washington’s offense was amply abetted against the Isles by Nicklas Backstrom’s shot and his faceoff ability. The third man on that line, Joel Ward, is as clutch a performer as the Caps display.

The Rangers must beware of Evegny Kuznetzov. The Rapid Russian killed the Islanders in Game 7 with his late third-period goal. He’s flanked by reliable Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson.

The visitors’ other lines include Andre Burakovsky-Jay Beagle-Troy Brouwer and the Tormenting Trio — Tom Wilson-Brooks Laich-Curtis Glencross. The latter unit provides relentless hitting and could pose a problem for the lighter Rangers; Wilson in particular.

Advantage: Rangers. The Blueshirts know how to negate The Big Eight. New York has too much fire power for the Caps’ defense after that.

DEFENSE

The return of Kevin Klein returns the Blueshirt defense to normalcy. No team can match the steadiness and offense-defense abilities of Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh, Marc Staal, Keith Yandle, Dan Boyle and Matt Hunwick.

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Washington counters with a well-rounded unit not to be taken lightly. Mike Green enjoyed a stellar season with such vets as Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, Karl Alzner and a rapidly maturing John Carlson. The Caps’ crew improved as the Isles series unfolded, allowing one goal apiece in three of the final four games.

Advantage: Rangers. Captain McDonagh tops any blue line foe and the Rangers group is more versatile in every department.

GOALTENDING

Here’s the pivotal difference. Henrik Lundqvist is well-rested. Last spring, he carried New York in the playoffs and is back for an 11th season. The King always gives the Rangers a chance.

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By contrast, Braden Holtby has been the Caps’ workhorse all season and should be worn out by now. No question, he’s good, but is susceptible to soft goals as he proved in the third period of Game 7 in Washington.

Advantage: Rangers. Until Holtby proves that he can beat Henny in a seven-game series, His Majesty will rule.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Ha! It’s weak power play vs. weaker power play. The Caps were 2-for-13 on PPs while the Rangers’ struggles — 15=percent success rate in playoffs — are well-documented.

Washington’s penalty kill batted one-thousand against the Isles (0-14). The Seventh Avenue Skaters didn’t do as well — allowing two power play goals in 13 shorthanded situations vs. Pitt.

Advantage: Capitals. Ovechkin is the most dangerous shooter of all on power plays and the Caps’ PK arithmetic says it all.

COACHING

Trotz is the first Caps coach to convert Captain Ovechkin into a reliable two-way player. What’s more Trotz has improved Washington by producing the most defensively-sound team seen in D.C. in years.

Vigneault should be a candidate for the Adams (Best Coach) Award. He has orchestrated the Rangers to the President’s Trophy, and has the brains and demeanor to take this team to the Cup Final.

Advantage: Rangers. Over the years, AV’s accomplishments top Trotz’s – but not by much.

X-FACTORS

The Rangers will need to elevate team speed through the neutral zone as well as execute cycling with more frequency. Having a more physically aggressive team — Ovie hits with the best of them — Washington will lay on the lumber. AV’s skaters must hit back and take advantage of the PP when the opportunity arises. Tanner Glass will be needed to neutralize the Wilson-types.

Advantage: Only time – and the referees – will tell.

CONCLUSION

Rangers in five. While winning the first round, the Caps took a physical beating over seven games against the Isles. Holtby has faced too much rubber to be 100 percent effective. The New York clincher is Klein’s return. His offense and defense will be decisive.