Sports

Picking Splinters: Red Vs. Blue

I don’t know how many Washington Capitals fans are super excited about the team’s first round matchup against the New York Rangers. I can’t say I blame them.

After repeated Game 7 shortcircuits against the Flyers, Penguins and Canadiens the past three playoffs, the skepticism of the Caps’ playoff acumen isn’t exactly ludicrous. Add in the fact that the Rangers have outscored the Caps 14-1 over their past three meetings – all Ranger wins – and the fear factor jumps up from ominous to downright terrifying.

But let’s keep the potential panic in check. Yes, there are a handful of reasons to like the Rangers as an upset pick – Henrik Lundqvist, the pressure on the Caps, the past flameouts, Lundqvist again, the Rangers forecheck, Washington’s banged-up blue line, and, oh, yeah, Lundqvist again – but let’s keep in mind that this is still an eighth-place team that needed a loss from the Carolina Hurricanes on the season’s final day to make the playoffs. This isn’t exactly the 1996 Red Wings we’re talking about

Having covered the Rangers for ESPN New York this season, I think there a number of areas that both sides should be concerned about in this series. And if I’m the Rangers, here’s what’s got me concerned about the Caps.

Washington’s Scoring Depth

The Rangers’ top defensive pairing of Marc Staal and Daniel Girardi is terrific, and might be one of the more underappreciated tandems in the league – which is saying something given the usual big-market biases. But while Staal and Girardi may have held Alex Ovechkin to just two assists this season, Washington’s offense has come to life, particularly on the second and third lines as the season has progressed.

Alexander Semin seems to be re-invigorated … or perhaps just invigorated for the first time. He’s playing the body, digging for pucks along the boards and hasn’t been sleepwalking through his shifts when he’s not on the rush or doesn’t have the puck. And Marcus Johansson has blossomed as he’s found his footing in the NHL. While he was at borderline replacement level early in the campaign, by the end of the season he was flying around the ice, drawing penalties (1.3 per 60 minutes, second only to Ovechkin) and recording 10 goals and 11 assists since the Winter Classic.

That depth could prove problematic for a Rangers team that relies on a lot of young defensemen. Matt Gilroy, Michael Sauer and Ryan McDonagh have been great for the Blueshirts this season, but they aren’t exactly drowning in experience. Veteran forwards like Jason Arnott, Mike Knuble, Brooks Laich and Jason Chimera may be able to exploit that to the Caps’ benefit.

Fatigue

While I think that oftentimes fatigue is overblown as a factor for winning and losing, the Rangers have really had to grind just to make the playoffs, while the Caps pretty cruised – relatively speaking – to the top of the East. The Rangers’ run to the playoffs was particularly taxing given their style of play. New York is not a team that will sit back and conserve its energy. Every shift the Blueshirts are going over the boards and hitting someone. They’ll get the puck deep and forecheck you until you turn the puck over. They win a lot of board battles, but that can be a very taxing strategy. And while Lundqvist has been great, Wednesday will mark his 27th consecutive start, his career high.

Scoring Goals

The Rangers needed to rely on a Carolina loss to eke into the playoffs because they were shutout 3-0 by the Atlanta Thrashers in the second-to-last game of the season. And yes, that’s the same Thrashers team that allowed, on average, the second most goals in the NHL. With Ryan Callahan down for the count the Rangers are short on goal scorers. Marian Gaborik has been a shadow of his former self and surprise 20-goal scorer Brian Boyle, has just one since the calendar turned to March.

New York has a lot of guys who can contribute in a lot of ways, but at the end of the game, you have to have someone who can put it in the net. If the Caps are smart with their puck control, move the puck diligently out of their own end and don’t give up too many odd-man chances, it could be tough for the Rangers to find much offense.

All of that said, yes, it’s a bad matchup for the Caps. Yes, they will be under huge pressure to advance and a Game 1 loss could be crushing. But the Rangers aren’t unbeatable and the Caps have more than enough talent to make past failures little more than unpleasant memories.