To help celebrate NBC Rivalry Night, NHL.com will look at a rivalry within the rivalry of the featured game on Wednesday nights.
Welcome to Rivalry Night Faceoff, a weekly feature that looks at one of the most significant head-to-head matchups in the NBCSN Wednesday Night Rivalry game. For this week, we're analyzing and trying to determine who has the edge in the matchup between Washington Capitals captain Alex Ovechkin and the New York Rangers' top defensive pair of Dan Girardi and Marc Staal when the sides are skating at even strength.
For the past two seasons it has been Girardi and Ryan McDonagh going head-to-head against Ovechkin on most shifts, at even strength and on the penalty kill. The Rangers' defense pair did a fine job, holding Ovechkin to three even-strength goals in 11 regular-season games since the 2010-11 season and one even-strength goal in 14 Stanley Cup Playoff games during the past two seasons.
Rangers coach Alain Vigneault broke up Girardi and McDonagh two games ago and inserted Staal on the left side of the top pair. Staal wasn't available to the Rangers save for one game in the playoffs last season because of an eye injury. He played in the series in 2012, but mainly was paired with Anton Stralman and at times with Michael Del Zotto.
However, NBCSN analyst Eddie Olczyk thinks Staal can be even more effective than McDonagh in limiting Ovechkin's quality chances because he's taller and his longer stick gives him a longer reach.
"Ryan McDonagh is a terrific defender, but there is something to be said for a little more size and taking up a little more room and taking away some of those passing lanes that [Nicklas] Backstrom seems to be finding for Ovechkin right now," Olczyk told NHL.com. "It's a greater challenge for Ovechkin to be up against guys like Staal and Girardi at the same time."
Even-strength play hasn't been kind to either side so far this season. Three of Ovechkin's six goals have come on the power play and he's a minus-4 as the Capitals have been outscored 16-8 while skating at even strength. Staal and Girardi each are minus-7 and the Rangers have been outscored 19-4 at even strength.
Ovechkin clearly has the edge when the Capitals' League-best power play is on the ice, so the Rangers have to stay out of the penalty box. If they do, how can Ovechkin swing the edge in even-strength play to the Capitals? What can Staal and Girardi do to stop him?
One side has an edge. Let's break it down to figure out which it is:
For Ovechkin to get the better of Staal and Girardi, and really the entire five-man unit that plays against him, it comes down to the play of his linemates, particularly Backstrom.
If Backstrom has room to work it will give Ovechkin time to dart in and out of areas to get open. Regardless of the defense pair and forwards he's facing, Ovechkin is at his best when he's unpredictable.
"I always felt that the more Ovechkin has the puck the easier it is to defend him," Olczyk said. "I'm not talking about the aspect of when he gets the puck in the slot and he's ripping it. Don't get me wrong there. But when he's more the puck handler it's much easier. He has the great ability to get in and get out, find the soft areas, pop in and let the shot go."
Girardi and McDonagh didn't allow Ovechkin to be unpredictable in the playoffs last season. His scoring chances suffered as they held him to the outside and the Rangers as a whole blocked a lot of his shots -- 26 in the series.
He had two shots on goal in Game 3 despite 11 attempts at the net. He had one shot on goal in Game 4 despite 10 attempts at the net. He again had one shot on goal in Game 7 but was limited to five attempts. The Capitals went 0-3 in those games, including a 5-0 loss in Game 7.
Ovechkin had a combined 26 shots on goal on 45 attempts in the other four games. The Capitals went 3-1 in those games.
Capitals coach Adam Oates pinned some of the blame on Ovechkin's lack of production in last season's series on limited power plays, but it's not necessarily a fair assessment.
Washington had a combined eight power-play opportunities (it went 0-for-8) in Games 3, 4 and 7, the games when Ovechkin was held to a combined four shots on goal. The Capitals did not have a power-play chance in Game 6, but Ovechkin managed to get off five shots on goal and had a total of 12 shot attempts.
"[The Rangers'] forwards did a really good job of coming all the way back and shrinking the space between the [defensemen] and forwards," Olczyk said. "When that happens you're getting into a compressor."
That's why the Capitals need to beat the Rangers off the rush or move the puck quickly when they're at even strength. It's the same formula they have against every other team, but it's been harder to do against the Rangers in recent seasons and Ovechkin's production has suffered because of it.
GIRARDI AND STAAL
Girardi and Staal will be effective in limiting Ovechkin's even-strength chances if the Rangers' forwards are effective against Backstrom and defenseman Mike Green when he's on the ice with Washington's first line.
The key is being aggressive and forcing Backstrom and Green to move the puck quickly. As Olczyk referenced, the Rangers won't mind if Ovechkin has the puck in the offensive zone as long as he's not in a shooting position or in an open area where he can create a shooting position for himself.
"If it is Green playing the puck or Backstrom playing the puck, the backcheckers and those guys that initiate really need to force them to move the puck right away and also identify where Ovechkin is," Olczyk said. "He's very unpredictable and that's what separates him from a lot of guys."
The problem for the Rangers is so far this season they haven't been aggressive enough in the middle of the ice because they haven't had enough bodies there. They've been giving up too many out-numbered rushes and it's led to them giving up 25 goals in six games, including a combined 20 in their past three.
Despite the fact that the Capitals have been held to eight even-strength goals in six games, Ovechkin will feast on the Rangers if they leave too much room in the middle.
"You're feeding the lion on that one," Olczyk said.
The Rangers have to play a more defensive-minded game against the Capitals. They can't try to trade chances with Washington. In fact, they should be in the game if they play the way they did in the first two periods against the St. Louis Blues on Saturday.
The Rangers were better in the defensive zone and held the Blues to 17 shots on goal, but some minor mistakes and goaltending problems led to five goals-against.
Staal has to use his long reach to cut off passing lanes. Girardi has to get down and block shots, especially when Ovechkin drifts to his side of the ice. The forwards have to attack Backstrom and compress the zone to keep Ovechkin on the outside.
"He [Ovechkin] gets that blue line and he's going to make something happen," Staal told NHL.com. "As much as it is the defensemen having good gaps and closing time and space, which is really important against him because he likes to shoot off the wing and when he has that opportunity he unloads it, it's five guys on the ice knowing where he is and shutting him down."
The breakdown above details only even-strength play because obviously Ovechkin has a major advantage when Washington's League-best power play is on the ice. He might be the most dangerous scorer on the power play in the NHL because of how well the Capitals work the puck around in their 1-3-1 formation. Washington hasn't been nearly as dangerous in 5-on-5 play this season, but Ovechkin should be able to find his share of scoring chances at even strength Wednesday unless the Rangers figure how to defend the middle of the ice. It's been a problem for them, and with the Capitals' speed and the way they can skate through the neutral zone in transition, Girardi and Staal could be hung out to dry.
Follow Dan Rosen on Twitter at: @drosennhl