Capitals look to break new ground against Rangers
Captain Alexander Ovechkin celebrates after the Capitals knocked the Islanders out of the playoffs on Monday night. (Getty Images/AFP)
Next up on the wish list of the Capitals and their superstar leader, Alex Ovechkin: Getting beyond the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
It has been a work-in-progress season for the Caps under their first-year coach, Barry Trotz, and the first evidence of improvement came not just in winning a first-round series, but in the manner in which they knocked off the New York Islanders in seven games.
Let’s just say, these weren’t your Bruce Boudreau Capitals.
Once a team that thrived by following (and relying on) the free-wheeling ways of Ovechkin, they are older and more mature now. And more importantly, the Caps are fully invested in the style of play Trotz has imposed on them.
Sure, they took seven games to defeat the upstart Islanders in what was a deliciously hard-fought and thunderously hard-hitting series. But the fact that they didn’t back down in tight games spoke volumes about their evolution.
In the past, underdog playoff opponents exploited the weakness of character the Caps often had shown. They will still be decided underdogs against the New York Rangers when the best-of-seven second-round series begins Thursday in Manhattan, but perhaps better equipped to handle the challenge than in the past.
“I knew what Barry wanted to do in terms of what he wanted to change here system wise and we’ve come a long way since training camp,” said defenceman Brooks Orpik, who was a key free-agent signee by the Caps in the summer.
Safe to say, Orpik and Trotz were likely on the same page from Day 1. And high on the to-do list was to be more responsible defensively team to start and certainly one that would be willing to engage physically all over the ice.
Against the Islanders, the Capitals were able to impose their will, especially in Game 5 and the deciding Game 7. They were better in their own end, for sure, but an aggressive, physical forecheck gave the battered New York defenders fits.
In Monday’s 2-1 clinching win here at the Verizon Center, the Caps limited the Isles to just 11 shots on net - three in the first period, four in the second and four in what should have been a desperate third for the visitors. Most notable, they zeroed in on Isles captain John Tavares, rendering him near invisible as he was kept to the outside and wasn’t credited with a single shot on net.
“They had 11 shots, that says it all right there,” Trotz said in his post-game press conference. “We stayed in the game plan.”
Staying in that game plan vs. the Rangers will be a step up in degree of difficulty, but few would argue that the Capitals are better equipped to give it a shot this time around than in previous post-season meetings.
Some of the names and faces will have changed, but these two combatants certainly are familiar foes. When they meet this time, it will mark the fifth time since 2009 that the Rangers and Capitals have squared off in the NHL post-season.
By swiftly dispatching the Penguins in five games, the Rangers will be well rested, not having played since Friday. And as Presidents’ Trophy winners they will retain home-ice advantage.
Under coach Alain Vigneault, the Broadway Blueshirts took advantage of their depth to suppress the Penguins and like the new Caps, play a grinding style that can stifle offensive flow. The Penguins had their offensive challenges, with injuries to Evgeni Malkin and Patrick Hornqvist, but scored just eight goals in the abbreviated, five-game series.
Based on their perch as reigning Eastern Conference champions, their league-leading 113 regular-season points and the ease with which they defeated the Penguins — a dozen more than the Rangers — the Rangers are the 3-1 favourites to win the Cup.
The Rangers and Caps are familiar playoff foes, with New York winning second-round series in both 2012 and 2013. The Rangers have 10 players remaining from the latter of those meetings, the Caps 13, though you probably shouldn’t read too much into that given how the new-look edition of the latter have been playing.
“I can’t see it resembling anything from two years ago,” Rangers winger Rick Nash told reporters in New York on Tuesday. “New coaches, new systems and the game evolves in two years.”
The series has the potential to be entertaining because even though both teams can play solid defensively, both can also thrive in an up-tempo game. The Rangers have shown, at times, that they can be among the fastest teams in the NHL.
“It’s going to be a tough series,” Nash said. “(The Caps) play a hard style. They’ve got a lot of big players.”
And players who are playing bigger than they have in previous playoff engagements.