Rangers-Capitals: The Curtain Lifts On Round Two


Meticulous to a fault, I have perused all available information from D.C. to N.Y. – and back with this astonishing conclusion, the Capitals are not Penguins.

This inescapable fact of life will be underlined Thursday at The Garden when the curtain lifts on Round Two, Washington vs. New York.

Unless all current forecasts are wrong – unlike Round One – this will be a first-class war of attrition with the big, bad Caps attempting an energetic encore after the triumph over the Isles, with a barrage of body checks hurled at every opportunity.

“Against the Islanders,” noted defenseman Matt Niskanen, “we made them uncomfortable in certain areas. At times they were thinking about just getting off the ice rather than coming at us with their offensive skills.”

The above statement, by the way, is Washington-ese for we beat the tar out of them. Or, to put it realistically, the Caps’ body work knocked two Islanders – Calvin de Haan and Lubomir Visnovsky – out of the series.

Actually, the Rangers will face a somewhat bi-polar Caps club. On the one hand, they love to hit – see Alex Ovechkin, Troy Brouwer and Tom Wilson. Yet on the other side, they’re sprinkled with virtuosos: Ovie being the lead talent.

Veteran defenseman Mike Green comes off a marvelously revived regular season and now is a prime disciple of coach Barry Trotz’s system.

“We’re encouraged to push the pace,” explained Green. “To move up the ice as a five-man unit; and, really, there’s a lot of support. With Barry, everything is detailed, very structured. The whole team has bought into that structure.”

Yet, Washington’s attackers should have mucho trouble solving the Rangers’ well-rounded defense. During the seven-game series against the Islanders, the Caps may have fired a lot of pucks but, as proven in Game 7, lit relatively few red lights.

And there’s a reason for that: The Caps are short on secondary scoring. Washington’s  Ovechkin-Nicklas Backstrom tandem can inflict only moderate damage, if it does any damage at all.

Subtract them from the equation and youthful Evgeny Kuznetsov, along with clutch vet Joel Ward emerge as the prime offensive weapons.

“When we play our system,” said Ward, “play within ourselves and not get carried away, we get a better result. Obviously, since the Rangers won the Presidents’ Trophy, they’re going to be tough.”

What Ward means is “tough” to beat. Just how rugged the Rangers have to be in the hitting department remains to be seen. Their resident cop, Tanner Glass, will be ready for any of Wilson’s shenanigans and he may be all the Blueshirts need in the belligerent category.

Secure in the knowledge that, man-for-man, he boasts more talented performers, Alain Vigneault likely will operate on the theory that the Caps can’t hit what they can’t catch.

Speed is the essence of the contemporary Blueshirts’ blueprint and the Capitals are acutely aware of that. Whether they can keep up is doubtful.

“The Rangers are fast and deep at every position,” added Niskanen, “and sometimes they also play a physical game. Hey, they finished first in the league for a reason.”

One of those reasons happens to be depth at every position and, right now, it’s required at right wing. Mats Zuccarello‘s upper-body injury could sideline him for a couple of games or the entire series.

Whatever the case, the spotlight will be on future Hall of Famer Martin St. Louis to fill Mats’ role.

Since lines are like movie theater times – subject to change without notice – it’s premature to suggest that St. Louis will work alongside Rick Nash and Derick Brassard.

For a super-experienced pro such as St. Louis, adjustability comes naturally. And for one of the NHL’s smallest players, so does being a bullseye for the big Caps.

“Washington has a physical team,” acknowledged St.Louis. “Now that we’re in the second round, we should expect physicality. The trick for us is to manage the puck well so they don’t get to use their size as much.”

Since crystal balls, Ouija Boards and Tarot cards forecasting the future of this series are out of The Maven‘s reach, I’ll rely on one of the most reliable of the Rangers, Dan Girardi, to provide a cogent view of what to expect Thursday.

“The Capitals are a complete team,”  the defenseman concluded, “and we’re going to have our hands full in this series.”

Perhaps; but not as much as the visitors — and that’s why I foresee the Rangers winning the series in five.