Capitals vs. Rangers: Conference Quarterfinal Mega-Preview

In five months, we could be having one of several conversations watching the pre-game skate at 1st Mariner Arena.  Will the talk be about how much the commemorative 2010-11 Stanley Cup Champions DVD is going to cost?  Or, will we be lamenting on another season that could’ve been special, grumbling about yet another 1st round exit to an 8-seed?  However the Caps’ strange 2010-11 campaign is going to end, it’s not truly going to begin until Wednesday night when the against the Rangers.

 

Get Primed
Listen to the “Playoff Faceoff” podcast I did over at HabsTalkRadio, where you can hear my side of the series vs. Adam from Blue Line Station talk himself into thinking the Rangers could win the series.  I went ballsy and predicted the Caps would win in five games.  Yes, you can [continue to] send your hate mail to me if we don’t advance.

Mark Your Calendars
Maybe I get sidetracked easily, but sometimes I’ll have so much flotsam and jetsam in my day that I forget something super important is happening that same night (dinner with parents, playoff hockey, minor surgery, etc.).  If you’re like me, go mark these dates down and don’t agree to that one annoying thing your co-worker is going to ask you to come to on Monday night the 25th.  In fact, I like to use playoff hockey as a good “line in the sand” to get me out of future commitments.  Once people know you’re serious about this stuff, they’ll always preface their impositions with “if you’re around, and there isn’t a game on or something…”  Someone asks you to do something on any one of these nights, you look them dead in the eye and you say “sorry, it’s the playoffs.”  Don’t apologize, don’t elaborate.  Just utter those words.  It may seem like a jerk move, but once your office/family/friends know that you are off-limits, the playoffs become sacred and nobody bothers you.  It’s glorious.

Wednesday, April 13 at Washington, 7:30 p.m., Versus/CSN

Friday, April 15 at Washington, 7:30 p.m., CSN

Sunday, April 17 at New York, 3:00 p.m., NBC

Wednesday, April 20 at New York, 7:00 p.m., CSN

*Saturday, April 23 at Washington, 3:00 p.m., NBC

*Monday, April 25 at New York, TBD, TBD

*Wednesday, April 27 at Washington, TBD, TBD

 

Set Up Base Camp
Figure out where you’re watching these games beforehand.  This seems like obvious advice, but decide if you’re Bar Guy, Couch Guy, or Pay for Tickets guy.  I’m a hybrid of no. 2 and 3 on that list; if I’m not actually there, I like to be fully recumbent with snacks on hand.  If you are Bar Guy, the Hudson Street Stackhouse is a good candidate if you’re in Charm City.  If you’re in the DC area, the Front Page in Arlington gets my vote.

 

Know Thy Enemy
If you watched any of the Caps-Rangers meetings this season, you know that on paper, we should be pretty worried about what the Rags are capable of doing to Washington.  In fact, if you selected two of those games to watch on video, you would see 13 Ranger goals and exactly zero Capital tallies.  That, as they say, does not bode well.  However, I’m going to go ahead and invoke the Gambler’s Fallacy and say that we are due for some production from the Caps against New York.  Overall, the Rangers play a fairly pre-lockout style of hockey.  It’s not always pretty, but they will grind on you and make you pay for mistakes.  They will be without Ryan Callahan, who you may remember as either a) their leading goalscorer or b) one of the 17 guys named “Ryan” on the 2010 U.S. Olympic team.  My favorite player on the Rangers is by far Brandon Dubinsky, and not because he dropped the mitts with Ovi for 24/7 and exchanged the infamous “good job buddy” with him.  He’s a two-way center who does the little things to create goals and also has a scorer’s touch.  So, basically the type of guy that can kill you in the playoffs.  Marian Gaborik is sort of their Alex Semin from what I can surmise.  Let’s hope he gets as quiet as Sasha does at times.  Dan Girardi is a heck of a defensman, and Brian Boyle scored a sneaky 21 goals this season.  Their coach, John Tortorella, is an a-hole.  It says so right here.  Don’t shoot the messenger.

 

Ovi and Bruce
There’s a lot of pressure on these two humans.  If one gets fired, you could easily make the argument that it was the other’s fault (no, obviously, Ovechkin’s not going anywhere).  I’ve never been able to pinpoint what Ovi thinks of Bruce Boudreau.  He clearly shows outward respect for him, and Bruce knows that he probably wouldn’t be the winningest active coach if Washington doesn’t land Ovechkin in the ’04 draft, but does Ovi feel he needs to rally the boys and save Bruce from the chopping block?  Probably not, just something I think about when there are several days without any actual hockey being played.  As for the Captain, he has a reputation of being a playoff choker, which is a farse originating in two major Pennsylvanian cities I will not name.  Facts are facts, and numbers (usually) don’t lie.  Ovechkin has 20 goals in 28 playoff games.  3 of them are game-winners.  Please find me a more productive scorer on a per-playoff game basis in the history of the NHL.  What’s that?  You can’t (h/t to Japers Rink for the stat).  Ovi’s game has evolved this year, and it will be both exhilarating and interesting to see if the shift in style translates to the playoffs.  Another guy whose changed his tactical colors (while retaining his infamous demeanor) is Boudreau.  It feels a little bit like we’re on the eve of the first space shuttle launch (not overstating that at all, am I?).  Yes, in theory, this new style of hockey should work in the playoffs.  But will it?

 

I’m Getting Too Old For This Shift
Uber-veteran Mike Knuble has been on fire in March.  Actually, Tarik El-Bashir did a much better job capturing what Knubs has done at his advanced age, so just go check out his take.  Knuble got himself a 1-year extension yesterday, which makes me happy because I love watching Knuble do his thing.  It’s also funny to look at the NHL’s game summaries, where they attempt to quantify what type of shot occurs and from how far out.  For some reason, they are notoriously bad at logging Knuble’s goals, marking them at 12 feet out and what not.  Mike Knuble knows one way to play hockey, and that’s with one skate in the crease at all times.  If Jason Arnott can get healthy, these guys can get together and do a “one last heist” type movie in which they try and win a Stanley Cup again after winning one when they were 25 (Knuble with Detroit and Arnott in New Jersey).  Now that I would pay money to see.

 

All The Young Dudes
It’s weird to talk about the “young guys” on the Caps and not be referring to Ovechkin, Semin, Backstrom and Green (all in their 20s).  No, the rookies who have stepped up into major roles this season: John Carlson, Michael Neuvirth, and Marcus Johansson, have all been impressive.  If you could get be put up for the Calder Trophy as a group, it’d be hard to argue against these guys.  This will be their first test of NHL playoff experience, and in such pivotal roles, the Capitals can’t afford rookie mistakes from any of them.  Actually, maybe we pair one of them up with Arnott or Knuble and do a buddy cop movie?  Okay, okay, I’ll drop it.

 

Not Again!
I’m certain the Buffalo Bills fans felt like this in the 1990s, but this can’t possibly happen two years in a row, right?  The Montreal series is a fuzzy memory of a never-ending series of gut punches.  Cosmically, we at least didn’t anger the hockey gods this year by winning the President’s Trophy.  That’s got to count for something, right?  I think the Caps, Sharks, and Red Wings all played it cool and let Vancouver step up and win the regular season handily.  Sort of like saying, “no, you guys hang on to the Ark of the Covenant for a while.”  It just never seems to go well in the modern NHL when you win that thing.  So, now that we don’t have the curse of the President’s Trophy hanging over us, the main motivator we have going is fear.  I said this on the HabsTalk podcast, but I think it’s worth repeating.  Fear of failure is the reason we’re often driven to succeed.  If Bruce Boudreau guides the team to another mid-April nose dive, his position will most certainly be re-evaluated by the management.  If certain hockey-savant-ish wingers who refuse to give English interviews don’t show up, they could find their Soviet butts on the trading block as well.  If one goalie chokes, and at this point I am still 50/50 on who that is most likely to be, they could be enticing trade bait to clear a spot for wunderkind Braden Holtby.  So, obviously, there are jobs at stake here.

 

On Goaltending, Playoffs vs. Regular season, and kale
Mainstream media likes to more or less ignore hockey until the playoffs roll around, then the big national radio hosts talk about how great playoff hockey is, and admit that they don’t have the interest to follow it during the regular season.  They also make a point of saying how important goaltending is in winning the Stanley Cup.  The annoying thing here is that the national media personalities (not mentioning names, but two of whom are DC-based), are completely right.  If I didn’t truly love the NHL, there’s no way in hell I’d watch regular season hockey.  I don’t expect everyone to love the things I love.  I think it’s actually kind of strange when people take that stance, and force nonsense bands like Animal Collective and foods like kale on people like me.  This analogy is going way off the rails, but let me get back to that second point about goaltending.  It’s one of those truisms, nay, cliches, that’s completely correct.  It’s the “buy low, sell high” of sports.  Hot goaltending can make or break your Second Season.  Last season, the Caps ran into a team that had two (at the time) stellar goaltenders.  Carey Price is world-class talent who happened to be cold at the wrong time, and Jaroslav Halak is a person whose last name is basically now a curse word in DelMarVa for what he did to Washington in that series.  This year we get to face another world-class netminder in Henrik Lundqvist, and not-so-world-class backup Marty Biron.  While neither Michal Neuvirth nor Semyon Varlamov are on King Henrik’s level yet, you have to like the Caps’ goaltending depth in this series.  If someone is cold, the other guy gives you a just as good, if not better chance to win.  If Lundqvist goes cold, the Rangers essentially need to score 4 goals to ensure victory.

 

Game Over Man
Remember Mike Green?  Me neither.  Apparently, according to Hockey-Reference.com, he was a pretty darn good defenseman that played for the Capitals way back in February.  Archival footage of him shows he was fond of riding a vespa in moccasins and styling his hair in some kind of fauxhawk.  Okay, enough.  As good as John Carlson’s rookie campaign has been, Green is essentially found money if he has any production coming off such a long layoff.  It concerns me he didn’t get a game or two in to shake off the rust before the playoffs, but the patchwork defense has been acceptable without him in the lineup.  Nobody is expecting “Game Over” Green level antics, like his end-to-end rushes and nasty snapshots from the point, but just being on the ice for a solid 20 minutes without injury would be all I could hope for from Greener.  Mike Green is an ever-evolving no. 1 defenseman, who showed he’s still improving and becoming a reliable piece on both ends of the ice.  For now, we’ll take whatever he’s willing to give.

 

The D Team
Speaking of  Green, defenseman Dennis Wideman has been a welcome replacement on the powerplay as sort of a Mike Green Lite.  That is, until he suffered a gruesome injury against Carolina two weeks ago.  Gross.  Here’s a free tip: Don’t Google Image search “hematoma.”  Just don’t.  There are some things you can’t unsee.  Anyway, Wideman is out for the entire series, but it’d be great to get him back A.S.A.P.  I know it’s en vogue to bang on the Caps defensive corps, but outside of Carlson, Alzner, Green, Hannan, and Wideman, I don’t like much of what I see.  I suppose you can’t be loaded at every position on your roster, but when Tyler Sloan and Sean Collins, two clear AHL-level guys, and Big John Erskine (who HAS markedly improved this season) are getting regular minutes, it’s time to add some blue-line depth.  Sorry Jeff Schultz.  You are the weakest link.  Dmitri, how soon can you be ready?

 

Fight! Fight! Fight!
As the incomparable Japers’ Rink posted, the Caps and Blueshirts like to throw down.  At 45 bouts, the Caps have had an uncharacteristically fightin’ season, especially given the resident pugilist D.J. King has barely needed to sharpen his skates this season.  Thanks go in large part for that go to Masterton nominee Matt Hendricks, who is essentially the human embodiment of that one neighborhood dog that continues to chase cars after it has been run over four times in the last year.  The dude has guts and a nasty shootout repertoire to boot.  Do you think he is going to put up with Sean Avery’s asshat antics?  Five minutes with Avery off the ice just makes for more enjoyable hockey overall.  The sad part is, Avery actually does posses some hockey skill, he just chooses to make a living being a clown.  Not that I don’t like the guy or anything.  Oh, and here’s the obligatory link to Alex Semin fighting like someone in a late night Denny’s brawl.

 

Predictions
Caps in 5.  Neuvirth gets all four wins.  Backstrom is the points leader for the series.   Your predictions in the comments.