So, correct me if I’m wrong, but: isn’t one of the incentives of securing the highest seed possible in a playoff race that you get to play as “worse” a team as possible?
Of course, in the politically correct/”don’t piss off your opponent” sports world, nobody will admit this. But, outside of home ice advantage for as long as possible in the postseason, isn’t that theoretically the benefit of getting the highest possible playoff seed you can? After all, logically, the higher your seed is, the lower the seed of your opponent.
Since February, the Capitals have been red-hot (no pun intended), winning 16 of 20 games and allowing 1.90 goals per game in that span. That streak helped them jump from a middle-of-the-pack team and second in their own division, to wrapping up the top seed in the Eastern Conference this year. Wonderful.
You know what that means, come mid-April? A whole lot of bupkis (see “playoff series vs. Montreal, 2010”).
As their “reward” for all of those accomplishments, the Capitals get a first round matchup against the 8th seeded New York Rangers. Now here’s the fun part: the game before that streak started, the Capitals were absolutely beat down by none other than… you guessed it, the Rangers! The last time New York played the Capitals, they mugged them to the tune of 6-0. In fact, the last three times the Capitals and Rangers have played each other, New York has outscored them by a combined 14-1. 14-1?!? That’s not even one-sided, that’s just plain lopsided.
And to top it all off, we get the pleasure of having to deal with Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist, arguably one of the best goaltenders on the entire planet, a player who lead the league with 11 shutouts and had a career-best .923 save percentage, and who also gave the Capitals fits the last time they went up against him in the postseason (2009).
Seriously? What the hell is it with the Capitals and having to deal with opposing goalies playing out of their mind? Last year, it was Jaroslav Halak playing like he made some occult-ish deal with some Old Testament-style demon before the 2010 postseason, providing him with superhuman goaltending abilities. The Rangers and Lundqvist gave the Capitals everything they could handle, and then some.
So when it comes down to it, this matchup against the 8th seeded Rangers is really going to tell us how much the Capitals have changed and grown from postseasons past. We’ve all bought into the fact that “this team is different,” and how the same group of guys, with the same coaching staff, now prefers to beat you 2-1 or 3-2, whereas in previous season, they’d have preferred to beat you 8-6.
But are the Capitals really ready to forego their Formula One style of offense, and play that dirty, gritty style of hockey that wins in the playoffs?
Naturally, for more expertise & insight into this matchup, I did my best to not listen to a single word that ESPN had to say about this series, and instead consulted my resident puck-head and Caps-fanatic friend, the Jew. Let me tell you: when it comes to all matters hockey – and especially Caps hockey – he’s a real mensch.
I asked him the same question: should we be worried about yet another first round upset? His thoughts:
“For some reason or another [the Rangers] have handled the Caps this season. I don’t think we match up well against them. They are just such a yeoman-like team that blocks a ton of shots and plays really hard every game. Those types of teams are the ones that I don’t think the Caps match up well against. Still, I think we will win, but it very well could go 6-7 games again.”
Outside of dropping the word “Yeoman” on me/us, the Jew also made some other great points, including the fact that not a single player on the Rangers has more than 25 goals nor 55 points overall, and that one of their best forwards (and third leading scorer) in Ryan Callahan is now out for the rest of the postseason. So, it’s not exactly like we’re playing “first team to get to six points” against Lundqvist and Co. Plus, the Rangers most dynamic offensive player, Marion Gaborik, is Empire city’s answer to Alexander Semin: an enigmatic superstar-caliber player that is completely unreliable in critical situations.
In the end, I think this series means a whole lot more to the Capitals than it does to the Rangers, and that’s why they’ll ultimately get it done. They have to get that proverbial “monkey off their back,” especially after last year’s loss, and all the failed expectations from a season ago.