One of the challenges when you play the Washington Capitals is containing Hart Trophy finalist Alexander Ovechkin. As Ovechkin has aged, his production has become more reliant on the power play. Additionally, his even-strength scoring is no longer as dominant as it was during his scoring prime. In a short series, you have to fear his power-play production. However, the Rangers can take advantage of him at even strength, which accounted for almost 90% of his ice time during the first round of the playoffs.
The Blueshirts took three out of four games against the Capitals during the 2014-15 regular season, out-scoring them 12-9. The Capitals actually won the overall possession game by a significant margin (60%-40%), but that number was influenced by score effects and was a more manageable 50% when adjusted for the score being close (within one goal). The Capitals’ power play did manage to do some damage, outscoring the Rangers 4-3 in just over half the minutes, but the Rangers inflicted heavy damage at even strength.
Looking at the shot breakdown over the four games, the Rangers only held a 33-32 green shot advantage. The distribution of color seems fairly even with the Capitals holding an eight-six advantage on yellow shots and the Rangers producing three more red shots at 78-75.
The raw numbers can be deceiving though. When we visually map out the shot locations, we see a cluster of shots the Rangers delivered from the lip of the crease, the highest scoring area on the ice. The Rangers managed to pepper Braden Holtby with high-quality opportunities in high-quality real estate.
Another factor during the regular season that should remain a focal point during the upcoming series is the Ovechkin-Ryan McDonagh matchup, one that was dominated by the Rangers’ captain.
McDonagh faced the Ovechkin/Backstrom line for the majority of his even-strength minutes and dominated the Caps high-scoring duo, out-scoring them 7-1.
Even if we remove the goals and just focus on the shot metric to assess his performance, we see that the McDonagh/Dan Girardi pairing managed to clean up the front of the net, while the forward units, led by Rick Nash and Kevin Hayes, were able to cause havoc in front of Holtby.
When we match this with Ovechkin’s even-strength production we see the same effect; Ovechkin struggled to produce at even strength against the Rangers’ defensive workhorse.
There are other matchups which will decide the series, most notably in goal where the Rangers have the dominant Henrik Lundqvist between the pipes. With Lundqvist in net, the Rangers know that playing a team to a standstill will generally result in victory because of their advantage in the crease (as long as the opponent isn’t Carey Price).
The Rangers can also lean on the Capitals with their depth as Hayes and Keith Yandle did significant damage during the first round against the depth forwards and defensemen of the Penguins.
Barry Trotz didn’t shy away from the Ovechkin-McDonagh matchup during the regular season and Alain Vigneault was able to get McDonagh out against Sidney Crosby regularly during the first round, so expect to see this matchup plenty during this series. If Ovechkin can’t turn his even-strength game around, then the Capitals will need to get small sample brilliance from Holtby, or have a lights out power play to have any chance of advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals.