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Caps' offense runs headlong into Rangers' defense

by Staff

One thing that is virtually assured when the Washington Capitals face the New York Rangers is that we will see some wide-open hockey. That's been the history between these two clubs this season.

The Capitals have won three of the four matchups, but all four contests have been close. New York's only win came in the shootout and the Caps took an overtime victory, a one-goal victory and a two-goal triumph that featured an empty-net tally. Overall, Washington outscored New York only 14-11.

Washington's second victory in the series, a 5-4 OT win, showed just how wild things could get in this series. In that game, New York raced out to a 4-0 lead, but the high-powered Caps scored five unanswered goals, including Shaone Morrisonn's winner in the first minute of OT. Alex Ovechkin also scored in that contest and finished the series with three goals in the four games.

Despite the closeness of the series, these teams are not very similar. New York is built from goalie Henrik Lundqvist out, while Washington is built from forward Ovechkin back. The Capitals are content to get into a wide-open game, believing they can win a shootout, as evidenced by the fact that their 272 goals were the most in the Eastern Conference and the second-most in the entire League. By contrast, the Rangers are eager to play defensive games and squeak out low-scoring wins. New York scored just 210 goals, but allowed just 218.

Not only do the Capitals possess three of the top-20 scorers in the League in Alex Ovechkin (second, 110 points), Nicklas Backstrom (9th, 88 points) and Alexander Semin (19th, 79 points), but they also have a stable of complementary forwards capable of coming up big.

Another area in which the Capitals have improved is faceoffs, with Backstrom, Sergei Fedorov, Michael Nylander and David Steckel posting a combined 52.0 winning percentage in more than 3,300 draws. The Capitals also create scoring chances, seemingly at will. Washington has fired the second-most shots this season, averaging 33.5 a game. Ovechkin, who has connected for 50-plus goals for the second-straight season, led the League with 528 shots.

Washington coach Bruce Boudreau has made a concerted effort to offer some measure of stability among his four forward lines, and the return of rugged Donald Brashear and center Boyd Gordon from injuries will only add to that depth. Let's be honest, though, whoever plays alongside Ovechkin, the current holder of the Hart, Maurice Richard, Lester B. Pearson and Art Ross trophies, will command most of the attention.

Despite a wealth of big-name forwards, the Rangers have struggled to score goals all season, even after John Tortorella took the coaching reins in late February and instituted a more-aggressive system in the attacking zone.

The Rangers have no one who reached 30 goals or 60 points this season. In fact, the team's leading scorer, Nik Antropov (59 points), scored most of his points before joining the team from Toronto at the Trade Deadline.

While the Rangers lacked a dominant scorer, they did spread out the glory pretty evenly, putting five forwards past the 20-goal mark, led by Antropov's 28 goals and the 24 scored by Markus Naslund. Nikolai Zherdev, Chris Drury and Ryan Callahan also topped 20 goals.

Scott Gomez, the No. 1 center, led the team with 42 assists, while Zherdev added 35 and Chris Drury 34. But, as a whole, the team was hard-pressed to blow open games, as evidenced by the fact it scored just 210 goals, the second-lowest total in the Eastern Conference.

At 23, Mike Green is establishing all sorts of records in only his third full season. His 31 goals and 73 points this season have given Capital fans reason to shout. Now, the team might not only have the League's flashiest forward in Ovechkin, but the most-dominant defender in Green. His 18 power-play goals fell one short of the League record held by Adrian Aucoin and Sheldon Souray.

While Green is the focal point, the Caps have also gotten solid campaigns out of Jeff Schultz, John Erskine, Shaone Morrisonn and Tom Poti. Brian Pothier recently returned following a 14-month hiatus while recovering from a concussion. He will provide much-needed depth in the playoffs. Pothier is the team's nominee for the Masterton Trophy.

The Capitals allowed 245 goals this season, and five of the team's regular defensemen have ratings of plus-3 or better.

Fortunately, the team has a solid defense that allowed it to stay in low-scoring games.

Part of the reason the Rangers were so stingy is that their top-six defenders stayed healthy for long stretches of time. In fact, the Rangers were one of the few teams that could boast it had six defenders play 75 or more games.

Michal Rozsival quietly served as an anchor, averaging 22:30 per game and scoring 8 goals, 22 assists and 30 points. Wade Redden, a target of fan hostility throughout his first season, averaged 22:20 per game and had 26 points. The team also profited from the maturation of a pair of young defensemen in Dan Girardi and Marc Staal, who is evolving into a true shutdown defender, Derek Morris, obtained at the trade deadline, has been a steadying force in the offensive zone. Paul Mara chipped in with 21 points and was the only Ranger defenseman to put up a positive plus/minus rating, checking in at plus-2.

Tale of the tape

HEIGHT:5'11" WEIGHT: 182
'08-09 Stats:
SV%: .900
GAA: 2.87
height: 6' 1"
weight: 195
'08-09 Stats:
SV%: .916
GAA: 2.43

Lost in the hype of Green and Ovechkin's offensive achievements is goalie Jose Theodore (32-17-5, 2.87 GAA, .900 save percentage), who reached the 30-win plateau for the third time in his career. Since Dec. 23, Theodore has quietly fashioned a 24-11-4 record with a 2.58 goals-against average and .910 save percentage.

The Rangers' best player, Henrik Lundqvist, does not have sexy numbers this year, posting a 2.43 goals-against average -- good for only No. 11 on the League list -- and a .916 save percentage; but he has performed a good deal of the heavy lifting for the Rangers. He has played the majority of his 4,153 minutes in nail-biting situations because of the team's inability to score. Lundqvist finished third in minutes played, and was fourth with 38 wins and 70 appearances.

Bruce Boudreau, whose team lost to Philadelphia in seven games in the first round last year, still believes he had the better team during the loss to the Flyers -- and he's out to prove it. The 2008 Jack Adams Award winner led the Caps to their second-straight Southeast Division title with 50 wins and 108 points.

The Rangers went 12-7-2 under John Tortorella, who replaced Tom Renney on Feb. 23. While that wasn't much better than the 31-23-7 mark Renney posted, the Rangers were 2-7-3 in the dozen games preceding the coaching change. Upon his arrival, Tortorella emphasized better conditioning, a harder forecheck, more hitting and quicker starts from his team.

Undisciplined teams beware! Washington's power play ranks second in the League with a 25.2 percent efficiency this season. The club scored at least one power-play goal in 25 of its last 33 games and converted 32.5 percent of its chances during that stretch (42 of 129). Meanwhile, the penalty-killing unit is 17th in the League with a 80.6 percent efficiency.

The Rangers are the worst five-on-five team in the Eastern Conference Playoffs, by a lot, and their power play ranks No. 29 at 13.9 percent, including a League-worst 12.2 mark at home. That poor showing is somewhat negated by the fact that the Rangers are the best penalty-killing team in the NHL at 87.8 percent. Their League-leading 10 shootout wins are a big reason they're in the playoffs.

Sean Avery, Rangers
-- He's the obvious pick until he proves otherwise. Avery is one of those agitating, attention-grabbing players who just seem to thrive in the fishbowl existence of the playoffs. He gets better, it seems, as a series goes along and the angst level rises. Plus, he has the skills to score some goals and not just inflict mental and physical damage. Don't believe us? Go ask Marty Brodeur and the New Jersey Devils about how Avery can affect a series.

Capitals will win if:
Jose Theodore is good enough to win a series and not bad enough to lose one. At times this season, the Capitals have won in spite of average to below-average goaltending. That doesn't happen too often in the postseason, especially against a team that will be out to limit the scoring chances presented to Washington's big guns. The Rangers have been in a life-and-death struggle to score goals for long stretches of this season. If Theodore doesn't help New York find its offense, the Capitals will happily try to outgun their opponent's pop-gun attack.

Rangers will win if: Their two biggest weapons -- Henrik Lundqvist and their penalty kill -- are the stories of the series. Facing the high-flying Capitals, Lundqvist will have to flat out steal a couple games to keep the Rangers' hopes alive. Washington also sports the second-best power-play in the League at 25.2 -- a League-best 28.2 at home -- and has scored 85 power-play goals this season. If the Rangers top-ranked kill can't slow that express down, this series may not last very long.

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