Rangers-Capitals Series Preview
After dramatic wins in games six and seven, the Rangers have battled back and dispatched with the Ottawa Senators. Saturday, they'll continue in the chase for Lord Stanley's Cup, opening a series with the Washington Capitals. @JoeBianchino
Survive and advance. That's what they say is all you have to do in the first round of the NHL playoffs. And that's just about all that the Rangers could do, stretching the series and their fans' will to live to the max, besting the Senators in seven games. Those seven games saw Lundqvist revise his role as "best goalie in the NHL," as well as the shocking emergence of rookie Chris Kreider - who looked like the best player on the ice Thursday night - beside the Swede, of course.
Those seven games also saw, however, a power play that continues to see the Rangers as the only team in the league who loses offensive momentum when on the man advantage, and stars markedly absent from the score sheet. So the result is one you happily accept, but there are certainly things on which to improve in round two.
The Capitals arrive at Madison Square Garden for the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals the winners of their own game seven. Washington turned back the defending champion Boston Bruins with each game having been decided by only one goal. Washington's newly found defense-first style of play treated them well, with such effort being led by the flabbergastingly superb goaltending of Braden Holtby - a man who was his team's third choice not long ago, apparently he found a way to bottle the talent that seemed to escape Marc Andre Fleury.
The Rangers and Capitals split their four games this year, and met in last year's playoffs with a very different Washington Capitals team claiming the series in five games. What needs to happen for the Rangers to reverse that outcome? Keep on reading on, friend:
KEY MATCHUP - Richards/Gaborik vs. Washington Defense: The answer here could easily be the Ranger defense vs. the likes of Ovechkin and Backstrom, but with the Caps' focus turning defensive, I look to the Ranger stars as ones who could swing the series. The Rangers relied heavily on secondary and tertiary scoring in their first seven playoff games, but the Ottawa defense is not the equal of this Washington squad. Don't expect the likes of Staal, Girardi, and Boyle to have the same success. If the Rangers are to win this series, they'll need to get production from their stars. Without such an effort, Lundqvist could very well be looking to try and shut out Washington to give his team a chance.
RANGER LIKELY TO HAVE A BIG SERIES - Chris Kreider: Kreider really was the best player on the ice Thursday night. His speed and toughness on the puck wreaked havoc on the Senators throughout the game. A man who stepped into game three timidly has come out on the other side of game seven looking like a true NHLer. His vision and instinct on the ice are exquisite and have him in exactly the right position more times than not. As he gets more playing time with the Rangers' top offensive players, expect Kreider to find more and more ways to take advantage of a defense that is worried more about the likes of Richards and Gaborik.
RANGER WHO NEEDS TO HAVE A BIG SERIES - Marion Gaborik: Of course it's Lundqvist, but let's dig beyond the unreasonably obvious to simply, the obvious. Want a sign that the world may, in fact, be coming to an end? Marc Staal had had as many goals as Marion Gaborik in their series with the Senators. Such is a trend that cannot continue. Gaborik is a top line winger and the Rangers stand little chance against this Washington defense without him playing as such. It is time for Gaborik to fulfill the promise with which he arrived in New York. It's time for Gaborik to fulfill the promise of a 40-goal year in 2011-2012. It's time for Marion Gaborik to be Marion Gaborik.
RANGER TO WATCH - Derek Stepan: Stepan was my pick for "Ranger who needs to have a big series" before game one with Ottawa. The forward answered my call by playing some of the worst hockey he's ever played through four games. In games five through seven, however, Stepan came alive. He figured into the scoring of all three goals in game six and unleashed one of the better passes I've ever seen to set up Staal in game seven. Look for the offensive skill that saw him starting the year on the Rangers' top line to shine through once again.
PREDICTION: Well into the second period of game six, the Rangers were trailing. They were on the road, facing elimination, and losing. For other teams, such would have been an invitation to pack it in. An absurd thought, sure, but we all know we've seen it before. So what is it then that gives a team the strength to battle back? Likely, the same force that gives a team the strength to dive in front of a vulcanized rubber disc traveling at well over 100 mph. The same force that allows them to turn back teams with better talent. And perhaps it's this as much as any X or O that has me believing. Washington is a good team, and though they play defensive, the same scorers are still there. They can erupt at any moment. The series may come down to a battle between Holtby and Lundqvist, but either way, something tells me this team ain't done. We're in for another long one. But, Rangers in 6. Believe.