WASHINGTON, DC - APRIL 15: Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers stops Nicklas Backstrom #19 of the Washington Capitals in the third period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals during the 2011 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Verizon Center on April 15, 2011 in Washington, DC. The Capitals defeated the Rangers 2-0. (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
A look at the Eastern Conference Semifinal series between the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals, breaking down the factors and offering a few reasons why either club could be headed to the Conference Finals.
In an interesting coincidence, the last two Winter Classic victors will face off in the Eastern Conference Semifinals following the Rangers tense Game 7 victory over the Ottawa Senators on Thursday night.
Each club had a hard road through the first round, with New York still feeling the absence of surprise postseason hero Brian Boyle, while the Capitals rode the stellar play of Braden Holtby past Tim Thomas and the Bruins, thanks to Joel Ward's overtime winner.
This will be the third postseason meeting between the two clubs since the lockout, and the Capitals have won both previous encounters. On the other hand, those previous matchups took place in the first round, where Washington had home ice as the Southeast Division champions. Now the tables have turned, but will it make an impact?
Despite some of the high-powered offensive talent in this series, neither team really poured on the offense in the first round. Alex Ovechkin has five points in seven games, as does Brad Richards, but players like Marian Gaborik and Mike Green have yet to be major offensive forces for their team. On the other hand, players like Brooks Laich, Niklas Backstrom, Ryan Callahan and Anton Stralman have all been stepping up to fill the void -- particularly for the Rangers, who have gotten some impressive depth scoring, particularly on the blue line.
Despite a well-publicized feud with interim head coach Dale Hunter, Roman Hamrlik has risen to the occasion in the playoffs, leading the Washington blue line in both point production and +/- rating. With Mike Green, John Carlson, and Karl Alzner forming the core unit with him, the bottom pairing of John Erskine and Jeff Schultz has been almost an afterthought on most nights, with Schultz in particular seeming to be a major liability against the Bruins' top line.
New York, by contrast, spreads the minutes around a bit more evenly, and have also been a more balanced part of their team's offensive production while still maintaining solid coverage.
Each team has been getting a strong commitment to the forecheck and blocking shots, but one of the areas where the Capitals have truly "bought in" under Dale Hunter is their teamwide dedication to maintaining an iron curtain of defense, sacrificing their old "firewagon" style of hockey in the process. It's not pretty, but it helped them to bring down the defending Cup Champs, and it just might be what they need to push their way past the No. 1 seed as well.
Each team's power play has been solid, delivering a 15 percent success rate that has them in the middle of the playoff pack, but the Capitals' PK has been the best in the Eastern Conference, killing off 91 percent of their penalties. Neither team has scored a shorthanded goal, but each has had some close opportunities, one might be forgiven for thinking it's just a matter of time.
Do you believe in old age and treachery, or youth and enthusiasm? Henrik Lundqvist isn't ancient -- he's just turned 30, in fact, but compared to his 22-year-old opponent, he's a grizzled veteran. With multiple playoff series and extensive Olympic experience under his belt (including his gold medal with Team Sweden), King Henrik has also posted the best save percentage of all Eastern Conference netminders (though Holtby is literally .001 percent behind him) and a 1.70 GAA. He's also one of the small group of goaltenders to have posted a shutout in the first round, giving a strong dose of confidence to his club. His backup, Martin Biron, doesn't have quite the same resume, but still brings thirteen years of NHL experience and 23 career playoff games, should he be required to pitch in.
By contrast, nobody really knows where Braden Holtby's ceiling might be, including Holtby himself. Given the chance to take over the Washington net after injuries sidelined Tomas Vokoun and Michael Neuvirth, he stood up to everything the defending Stanley Cup Champions could throw at him over the course of their seven game series, and showed a balance of icy nerves and fiery passion that could put him in the top ranks of NHL goaltenders if he continues to build on his stellar debut.
Behind him, however, is an open question. Should Holtby go down, both Neuvirth and Vokoun are listed as "day to day" with lower body injuries, and it's unclear if either are in playing shape, though Neuvirth did dress as Washington's backup in Game 7.
The Rangers Will Win If ... King Henrik can continue his reign. If the loss of Brian Boyle inspires others to step up in his place. If Brad Richards can continue his impressive debut season on Broadway. If John Tortorella can take the lessons from the first round and apply them accordingly. If Marian Gaborik wakes up. If Chris Kreider can continue his impressive NHL debut. If the team that dominated the Eastern Conference can shake off their stumbles against the Senators and impose their will.
The Capitals Will Win If ... Braden Holtby truly is the next coming of Ken Dryden. If Alex Ovechkin continues to find ways to score without neglecting defense. If their defense can engage on both sides of the puck. If Dale Hunter's work behind the bench keeps looking more like a strategy -- and less like a desperation move. If Joel Ward keeps earning his contract with clutch scoring. If their penalty kill can pull the teeth off the Blueshirts' power play. If the Russian Machine Never Breaks. If they can play like division champions regardless of where they ended the regular season.