Welcome to yet another edition of “Around The Boards,” where we allow our Caps blogosphere brethren and other media mavens from around the D.C. Metro Area and beyond to wax poetic. With the first round series between the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers set to begin Wednesday, KOL reached out to four close friends who were nice enough to provide insight on what promises to be an exciting series.
First, our panelists.
- Craig & Doug, better known as the PuckBuddys.
- Ian Oland, the Russian Machine. Ask him about his “magic hands.”
- The lovely Keara Dowd of the Hockey Writers.
First question. How do you feel the Caps match up with the Rangers? What’s the biggest cause for concern for Washington?
Craig & Doug: It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! Or at least, that time of year when we get to unwrap our gifts and see what’s really inside. Thinking about the Caps/Rangers match-up takes one back to the Christmas season…and not with happy memories. The Caps mostly dominated our first meeting in November, only to be followed by a dismal 7-0 shutout that seemed to signal the coal lumps to follow. A string of losses followed, then a January shoot-out heartbreaker. But worse was to come. April may be the cruelest month, but February 25 was the baggy-pants farce of the season when we hosted the Rangers.
That said, our second Lundqvist shutout – an embarrassment at 6-0, may have been the electric eel in our trousers and could’ve been the impetus for us to step it up for real; 9 consecutive wins followed (snapped only by our dear Wings.) To the biggest concern: we know to expect a fast and physical team. And despite losing Ryan Callahan, they’ve got plenty of shooters who can vex us, and we know all too well the effectiveness of their Swedish steel defense net minder – when Lundqvist is white hot, he can prove very troublesome.
Unlike the past Ranger games, we go in this series with a somewhat different team: Jason Arnott stepped in and wired some heads and asses together and Mike Knuble is playing and scoring like a youngster. If we get Greenie back into the mix and keep Eric the Fehr and the other boys healthy, the results could be far different from the memories that have haunted us these past few months.
Oland: Overall, I don’t think the Caps match up well with the Rangers. But maybe that’s just me being overly-pessimistic and guarded considering last year’s first round flame-out and the NYR’s 7-0 and 6-0 beatings earlier this season. The one person Washington really has to worry about is world-class goaltender, Henrik Lundqvist. As my RMNB blogmate Neil Greenberg brilliantly pointed out on Capitals Insider Monday, Lundqvist rarely gives up goals from outside the scoring chance area inside the offensive zone. If the Capitals dedicate themselves to crashing the net and can finish on second or third opportunities (please SHOOT HIGH GLOVE SIDE), this series is definitely winnable. Have they learned that you must pay the price to score goals in the playoffs? We’ll see Wednesday.
Dowd: These teams actually match up pretty evenly for two teams so far apart in the standings. It’s not like in ’09 when the Rangers’ strengths were the Capitals’ weaknesses and vice versa. The Caps were actually .05 better in GAA than the Rangers this season, while the Rangers were actually .06 better than the Caps in G/G. Their styles aren’t all that different anymore. The main cause for concern for the Caps won’t be their own game, but the game of Henrik Lundqvist. If he gets hot, he can steal a series. If he is just pretty good or mediocre, the Caps will advance.
Which Cap in particular must step up in order for Washington to have a chance to advance?
Craig & Doug: The easy answers are, well, easy. We need million dollar performances from our million dollar players. Sasha needs to step up and be consistent and hot for a full 60 minutes. Alex is plenty capable of drilling the sh*t out of Lundqvist and he needs to unleash a blistering fusillade on their net. Nicky needs to be the calm, cool and collected guy that is everywhere at once. The adults on the ice, Arnott and Knuble, need to keep doing what they’re doing – bringing their veterans’ steely nerves, experience and scoring abilities. As far as other scoring, all season long it’s been the lesser magnitude stars – MoJo, Brooks, Eric – that have bailed us out and found the twine when our golden boys seemed snake bit, and they too, need to stay in the hunt. And lastly, the D must be savage and ruthless. Carlson, Erskine and Hendricks needs to thrash the Rangers mercilessly, non-stop. “Come into our zone and you will pay with your lives.”
Oland: I hate avoiding the question, but I don’t think one player necessarily has to step up for this team to win the series. I think the Capitals need strong play from their special teams to win. Can Washington’s second-rated penalty kill (85.5 PK% during the regular season) continue their dominance in the playoffs? Or will they be figured out? Can the Capitals powerplay score more than the two goals they netted in the Montreal series last year? Will Mike Green even be on the powerplay? There are a lot of questions. I think the key is getting rebound goals from Mike Knuble and Jason Arnott on the powerplay. To continue to see guys like Matt Bradley give high-value minutes and continue to contribute 5+ hits per night while barely seeing double-digit minutes of ice time. And I would love to see Alex Semin get off the schnide and score a goal in the playoffs again. But let’s think team, not individuals! If the team plays like it can and focuses on a singular goal, there should be nothing that holds them back.
Dowd: Alexander Semin definitely has to play a bigger role in the post season if the Caps hope to advance, particularly against the Rangers. New York has a very solid defensive core and a spectacular goalie in Lundqvist. The Caps will need their best scorers to be their best scorers. If it were last season’s roster, I’d say Mike Green as well. However, with the addition of Scott Hannan and rookies John Carlson and Karl Alzner stepping up, his role doesn’t have to be as large. The rest of the defense has been chipping in nicely from the blue line to put too much pressure on Green, and if the offense is firing his contributions would be missed minimally.
In the same vein, which Ranger in particular must be shut down in order for the Caps to succeed?
Craig & Doug: Lundqvist (11 shutouts in his stats this season vs. us being shutout 11 times). The magic giant – and total hottie – has been the immovable object between the pipes this year. He’s handsome as all get out, or hawt, as they say in Swedish, and might come into this series thinking that he owns us. Lundqvist – “The Man Who Stopped Everything” as the Wall Street Journal weiners dubbed him – is a Blue Chip on that team. Sadly, no-one’s yet found a way to shut that guy down. The Caps need to do anything they can to mess up that perfect face and knock his Scandinavian ass back into last week. Constantly crash the net, camp out in their crease so long that the Caps need to have their mail forwarded there. As for their scorers, anyone with the last name Staal is going to be an irritant, and Dubinsky and Gaborik (really? Marian Gaborik?) have proven lethal. But look, it’s starts and ends with Lundqvist. Get into his head. Kill the head and the body dies.
Oland: Funny. The first person that came to mind for me was John Tortorella. I vividly remember Bruce Boudreau getting horribly out-coached during the two teams’ last meeting in the playoffs in 08-09 – well, until Torts lost his mind in Game 5 and started spraying people in the first two rows behind the bench with Gatorade. Will Boudreau match lines well against the intelligent, former Stanely Cup Champion coach? Will Boudreau have the right people out on the powerplay? Will Marcus Johansson see zero defensive-zone draws during the course of the series? It’s important for a coach to not allow the other one to gain any type of advantage. Can Bruce right the ship this year if something is going wrong?
Dowd: The Caps must shut down Marian Gaborik. He is fast and makes a lot of plays for their team. He is tied for second on the team in scoring despite missing 16 games. His speed and stick handling are unparalleled on that team. He is the skill to complement the grinders, and if they can shut down Gaborik, the Caps offense will be able to score enough goals to win.
Which goaltender do you feel should get most of the work: Neuvirth or Varlamov? Why?
Craig & Doug: We think it was Locher, who lamented earlier in the season about having goalie binary stars – two of them, without an obvious standout, may mean a team really doesn’t have one strong net minder.
We’ll see if old number 18 is right – we certainly proved that walking-talking fuckstick Dan Byslma wrong on his ‘soft goalie theory’.
Neuvy or Varly: This is like asking us to choose our favorite Ramone! (OK, Joey!) Varly – like a certain fellow Russian team-mate – is just dazzlingly good when he’s on…and his stats (injury included) say as much. But Neuvy – the kid who’s really almost the same age as Varly – has been a total man, stepping up and stepping out in the net. Frankly these guys have an all-but impossible job…and must be made of different stuff than we mere mortals. (I mean really – can you imagine Neuvy at breakfast? “Here’s your pancakes, dear,” you say, just before he splays out all butterfly at the kitchen table, flinging flapjacks, bacon and coffee to the windows).
Honestly, though it’s too big a risk to take, we vote for the third goalie – Braden Holtby. Look, the kid’s a hot mess, a seeming bundle of nerves, but there’s just something about the way he commands that space that’s inspiring. Braden – we’re going to be watching you in the not-too-distant future. We already are.
Oland: I think Semyon Varlamov should start every game of the playoffs, though I anticipate Neuvirth starting in Game 1 and never really surrendering the spot. Varlamov has been the guy the last two years in the playoffs, and when healthy, he’s been the better of the two goaltenders during the regular season. I run a blog called Russian Machine Never Breaks too. Somebody has to be in Varly’s corner, right? I’m sure if you read all of the national writers’ playoff previews, they’ll all point to goaltending as the one thing that could potentially bring the Capitals down. But both of these guys are competent in net. And hell, if both of them slip, Braden Holtby will be up the next day. The one thing that makes me feel comfortable about Neuvy getting a bulk of the minutes, is what Andrew Gordon said to me earlier in the year in Hershey</a>. He’s played with all three guys and I asked him which ‘tender he would rather play in front of in a game 7 situation. This is what he said:
“It’s a tough call. I mean, Varly’s, I mean obviously what he’s done, you know his career, especially up top, he’s been outstanding. He’s made some huge saves when guys need it. He’s won some clutch game sevens and things. Holtby’s really great at moving the puck and, you know, he’s really coming into his own as a big game player himself. But, I mean, in the last couple of years, Neuvy has been the guy and you can’t contest what he’s done for us. He’s pretty much single-handedly won us a couple rounds of playoffs and, I mean, I got two rings on my finger pretty much because of that guy so, if I was going into a game seven situation, I’d take my boy, Neuvy.”
Dowd: Let me start by saying that on the goaltender situation, there really is no loser. Each goalie had one terrible game against the Rangers, Varlamov losing 7-0 and Neuvirth losing 6-0, and each goalie has great regular season stats. If I were Bruce Boudreau, I would likely give the game 1 start to Varlamov and see if he runs with it. For the last two playoffs, Boudreau started with another goalie and ended up finishing with Varlamov. Varlamov was also very good in his NHL playoff debut series against the Rangers in 2009. I believe his last two springs have earned him the start at the beginning. However, there is no time for messing around and a short leash would be necessary. Should Neuvirth have to come in, there is no doubt in my mind that he would do a good job as well. I don’t think one is that much better than the other, so I’m leaning on the side of playoff experience.
Craig & Doug: We don’t normally kiss and tell…but here’s what we say: Caps in 5. Bold? Yes, even brash. We’ll need to be to get through this series victorious. Make them suffer, crush their spirits and break their will. No fucking prisoners!
Oland: I hope I don’t have my Caps blinders on, but I predict Washington will win the series in 6 games. I think their defense is much improved and the offense will do what it takes to score on the King. Plus, they’ve been through so much adversity this year and they seem to be confident and not cocky. I think that’s a great recipe for success. But my fingers are crossed. Carlzner, please dominate! K?
Dowd: Caps in 6