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Goalie matchup: Rangers-Capitals

NHL.com @NHL
Goaltending is the most important position in any playoff battle. Without good goaltending, the Stanley Cup is near impossible to win.
 
So NHL.com decided to break down the strengths and weaknesses of the 16 goalies that will compete for this year's Stanley Cup championship in the most in-depth manner possible.

In order to do that, we found some experts, enlisting Ken Baker and Justin Goldman.

Baker, most recognizable as E!’s Chief News Correspondent, is a goalie junkie. Not only did he play the position in college, but he wrote a memorable book about playing the position, They Don't Play Hockey in Heaven, which chronicled his attempt to make the ECHL's Bakersfield Condors after overcoming a brain tumor. He is also the brain behind the Stop Da Puck blog, which details all things goaltending.

Goldman, meanwhile, is one of the preeminent goaltending experts on the Web. His site, www.thegoalieguild.com serves as a haven for those who share a passion for goaltending with a mission to enhance and advance knowledge of the goaltending position through a wide variety of interactive and in-depth scouting services.

For this exercise, we used a draft mechanism that allowed each expert to pick four of his favorite goalies and start the discussion. Baker picked the four goalies he wanted to trumpet in the West, leaving the rebuttal to Goldman. In the East, Goldman made the picks, leaving rebuttal duties to Baker.

Here are the intriguing results, which promise to be a treasure trove of insider info on the men that more than anyone will determine who advances to Round 2 of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

No. 1 Washington vs. No. 8 NY Rangers
Justin Goldman chooses Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: So it took a whopping 363 days, but Henrik Lundqvist finally exorcised his demons. That sickening shootout loss to the Flyers in Game 82 last year was laid to rest during the weekend, and the Rangers secured the No. 8 seed in the East.

And now that he's in, he has nothing to lose.

You probably know that I've been one of Michal Neuvirth's biggest fans all season. I love his calm butterfly style and his upside. And yes, I know all about his two straight AHL titles.

But there's no way I can bet against Lundqvist. He's way more experienced, consistent and durable. He also knows what it takes to win pressure-filled games, whether it's in the Stanley Cup Playoffs or the Winter Olympics.

Not only does Lundqvist have a huge edge in experience, but the Rangers do a great job of blocking shots. To me, that's a perfect matchup against a Capitals team that will be feeling the heat as the No. 1 seed.

I also can't look past the fact that Lundqvist snagged two shutouts in three games against the Capitals this season. One was a 31-save effort (Dec. 12) and the other was a 35-save effort (Feb. 25). And to think, he added nine more shutouts during the course of the regular season.

It won't be a cakewalk, though. Washington is much more defensively sound this year and much more experienced as a group. Henrik will also have his hands full fending off the big, bad and "rested" Alex Ovechkin.

But elite goalies almost always find a way to play exceptionally well against other elite players.

It's never easy to bet against Neuvirth and the Capitals. But I'm crowning King Henrik as the winner of this series.
Baker counters: The spell-checker-resistant spelling of his first name aside (I jest, of course, as I respect anything and everything that comes out of the Land of Hasek), I like this promising Czech as much for what he has been able to do this season as for the character-building road he's taken to get there. It's a career-building story that has been told so little that Michal Neuvirth is flying into the playoffs somewhat stealth.

But the reality is that this sort of challenge is not new for the netminder. For being just 23, he has the kind of journeyman resume you'd see out of, say, Dwayne Roloson. As a teen, he put in hard time with three different teams in the OHL. He honed his craft in Hershey, after starting his career in 2008 with South Carolina of the ECHL, only to be brought up to Hershey, where then for two-straight seasons he led the chocolate Bears to two AHL titles, nabbing an MVP award in the process and setting a record as the first goalie to record shutouts in Games 6 and 7 of a playoff series.

This is all to say that while Neuvirth is an NHL playoff neophyte, he has proven experienced under postseason pressure in the pros.

Neuvirth's calm net presence, baby-bottom smooth movement and economy of motion is normally seen in more mature goalies, but his dues-paying in the minors has made him a formidable puck-stopper in the majors. If Lundqvist is the King, then Neuvirth is the able Prince just one sword fight from knocking his elder of his horse. This series will be his chance at such a territory-establishing battle.

Yet Neuvirth's greatest strength in this series likely will be the inconsistent offense of the Rangers and a Caps team whose defensive system is so disciplined for the first time in a long time.

And, oh, Neuvirth has a secret offensive weapon who wears No. 8 and who, unlike himself, will not be flying into this series under anyone's radar. For all these reasons, and despite some rumblings that he would be replaced by rookie Braden Holtby, Neuvirth will backstop. And, remember, this is the nation's capital. So get ready to see the hometown campaign signs: "I Like Mike!" Even if they spell it wrong.

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