It's December 7, 2010. The Washington Capitals are in hell.
They've just lost 7-0 to the New York Rangers at the World's Most Famous Arena, and have extended their season-long losing streak to six games. It will last another two before they can get out of it. They are under constant spotlight of cameras filming them for the HBO reality series 24/7 Penguins/Capitals: Road to the Winter Classic.
Even the usually confident head coach Bruce Boudreau is baffled "I've got to think about this," he says "It is unfamiliar territory. I think we have a lot of people feeling sorry for their selves. But as you can tell, teams aren't feeling sorry for you. They're pushing it on and piling it on. We have to find a way to get out of this, that's all. Before it's too late."
Of course, the Capitals figured things out. They hadn't even fallen out of first place of the Southeast Division, and rarely did all season long. They still were unable to find a way to solve the New York Rangers, as they went on to lose their final two games against the Broadway Blueshirts, going 1-3-0 against New York for the season. This included another blowout, a 6-0 drubbing at the Verizon Center on February 22. The Rangers out-scored the Capitals 17-6 in four games this season.
As for the Rangers, they needed to back their way in to the post-season. A win over New Jersey Devils on the campaign's next to last day, couple with a Carolina Hurricanes flop of a loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning later that evening, is the only reason they survived a final game elimination for the second consecutive season. But now that they are in and facing the Capitals for the second time in three post-seasons, do they have the perfect opponent?
This is where the Rangers can steal the series. Henrik Lundqvist has - almost under the radar with Tim Thomas dominating - another fantastic regular season. He had a league-leading 11 shutouts to go along with 36 wins and a solid 2.13 goals against average. He is going to need to steal the Rangers at least two games - maybe more - if they plan on upsetting Washington. Jaroslav Halak's star-turn with the Montreal Canadiens is largely responsible for the undoing of Washington last year, and Lundqvist is certainly capable of putting up something similar. Though he has looked poor at times in the post-season (he only has two career series wins), and had an undesirable 3.00 GAA and a .908 save percentage in the 2009 seven-game series between these two teams.
The Capitals, on the other hand, continue to have the two-headed, and if things get dire, three-headed monster of young goaltending. Michal Neuvirth saw the bulk of the work this season, winning 27 of 48 and posting a solid 2.45 goals against. Meanwhile, the Capitals starter for most of the last two playoff runs the team has made, started only 27 games, partially due to injury, partially due to Neuvirth playing well. There's still no starter named for Game 1. If both goaltenders flop, Braden Holtby could be a solution in desperate times. The 21-year old rookie won 10 of 14 with a miniscule 1.79 GAA. That said, the fact that there's still a question in the face of Lundqvist's reputation means Edge: Rangers.
Alexander Ovechkin is obviously the headline player in this series, and the "Ovechkin vs. Lundqvist" angle will likely be played up big-time on television. It's deserved, too: in a season where The Great Eight was supposedly at his worst, he was still a point a game player at 32-53-85. His supporting mates - Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin - also took big hits, with season-to-season point drops of 36 and 30, respectively. Green saw his offensive numbers decimated from missing nearly half the season. Brooks Laich and Mike Knuble also eclipsed 40 points, but both were below last year's levels too.
The Rangers forward ranks remain depleted from Ryan Callahan's injury. Despite missing 22 games, he tied for second on the team in points. Marian Gaborik - who's speed and talent are matched by only Ovechkin in the series - had only 22 goals in 62 games, but is presumably healthy heading into the playoffs. Staying that way will be huge. Brandon Dubinsky led the Rangers with 24 goals, 30 assists and 54 points. Only Nashville, Edmonton and Florida had less prolific leading scorers. That said, with Chris Drury possibly returning to the land of the living, the Rangers could have contributors from every line. Until that is proven, however, Edge: Capitals.
Here's a real interesting one: The Capitals, in their attempt to improve their team defense and make it more "playoff ready," actually succeeded. They've given up only 197 goals this season, third best in the league. The system Boudreau has put in place has - while slowing the offense a bit - become tight-checking and tough to break. While their personal remains more reliant on offensive defensemean like Mike Green (who is expected to return from concussion symptoms) and recent acquisition Dennis Wideman, it has been young players who've stepped up to fill gaps and turn the Caps into a defensive juggernaut.
John Carlson, the rookie who scored the game-winning goal in the 2010 World Junior Championships, has ignited the team on both sides of the rink: he's a +21 with 37 points, and can play shutdown with the best of them. Karl Alzner has had a quieter rookie season, but has also been very good with a +14. Jeff Schultz remains a solid, if unspectacular, tower of strength at +6, while rarely taking penalties. If Green returns, Washington has a really good-looking, two-way defense core.
The Rangers have an impressive young defensive group in their own right. Marc Staal and Dan Girardi were both plus players and offensive contributors. Michael Sauer remains one of the NHL's most fascinating resurrection projects, while putting up a +20. Matt Gilroy and Ryan McDonagh continue to progress nicely. Bryan McCabe was considered the move that would push the Rangers into contender role, but that hasn't happened. Still, the 35-year old can still contribute on the power play.
Two very solid young defenses, but personally, I think the Capitals are just a little bit better, especially if Green returns and can contribute, and doesn't play like a traffic cone in his own end. A big if, but for now, Edge: Capitals
The Capitals power play may have taken a hit from both the new focus on defense, as well as Mike Green's absence. They finished an average 17.5% on the man advantage, good for tied at 15th with Ottawa. This was down nearly 8% from last year's astounding 25.2% clip that lead the National Hockey League. Ovechkin suffered the most, only scoring seven power play goals, technically tied for the team lead with Mike Knuble (Wideman potted nine, but most were with Florida). Still, with Green returning and Ovechkin eager to show up big in the playoffs, you have to think they'll find a way at some point. The Rangers power play was an equally mundane 16.9%, 18th best. Though McCabe's acquisition and a healthy Gaborik figure to help.
On the penalty kill, however, the Capitals were tied with Vancouver for second best in the league, a category where they haven't placed top 10 in the league since the Jagr-era. They killed off 85.6% of all penalties, and scored seven short-handed goals. The Rangers are very good down a man as well. They finished 10th in the league at an 83.7% clip. They tied for fourth in the NHL with 11 shorthanded goals. Both teams are solid at stopping the penalty kill, average on the power play, and feature some shorthanded threats. Edge: Push
Game 1: Wed., April 13 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 2: Fri., April 15 at 7:30 p.m.
Game 3: Sun., April 17 at 3 p.m.
Game 4: Wed., April 20 at 7 p.m.
Game 5*: Sat., April 23 at 3 p.m.
Game 6*: Mon., April 25 at TBD
Game 7*: Wed., April 27 at TBD