April 28 vs. New York Rangers at Madison Square Garden
Time: 3:00 pm TV: NBC Radio: 1500AM, 820AM, XM and Caps Radio Network Pre-Game: Two-Man Advantage at noon, John Walton’s one-on-one audio with Dale Hunter at noon on washingtoncaps.com.
Washington Capitals (42-32-8), 92 points
New York Rangers (51-24-7), 109 points
Game 1, Eastern Conference semifinal series
Both the Washington Capitals and the New York Rangers needed seven games to get through their respective first-round series. Now, they’ll meet one another in the Stanley Cup playoffs for the third time in the last four springs.
The Caps closed out their first-round series against the Bruins in Boston on Wednesday and had to wait for the Rangers to oust Ottawa on Thursday before learning that the Blueshirts would be up next.
“Sometimes the waiting is the hardest part,” says Caps center Brooks Laich. “I watched the game [Thursday] night. [The Rangers] played very well and they’re a very good hockey team. We’ve faced them a little bit in the past, so we know what they’re about. It’s going to be a good series.”
Washington needed overtime of its seventh game against the Bruins to beat Boston and move on to the second round. Right wing Joel Ward scored on a rebound of a Mike Knuble shot at 2:57 of the extra session to dethrone the defending Stanley Cup champion Bruins.
For the first time since 1990 and 1991, the Caps have moved beyond the first round of the playoffs in successive springs.
Three weeks to the day after Washington closed out its 2011-12 regular season slate with a 4-1 win over the Rangers in New York, the Capitals will take on the Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinal series at Madison Square Garden on Saturday afternoon.
Washington knocked the Rangers out of the postseason in the first round in both 2009 and 2011. Until the Capitals ousted the Boston Bruins in the first round of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, the Rangers were the only team the Caps had defeated in the postseason since Washington’s trip to the Stanley Cup final in 1998.
The last time the Capitals and Rangers met beyond the first round was in 1994. New York disposed of Washington in five games in the Eastern Conference semifinal series that spring. After eliminating the Capitals in ’94, the Rangers went on to win their first Stanley Cup in 54 years.
Once again, Washington starts a playoff series on the road. Going into the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs, the Caps’ 16-21-4 regular season road mark was the worst among the 16 playoff entrants. But the Caps won three of four road games in Boston in the first round, and they’ve won three of the five postseason games they’ve played at Madison Square Garden since 2009.
Washington’s goal will be simple one, it’s the goal of all teams opening a playoff series on the road: win one of the first two games of the set to take away home ice advantage.
“It’s an us vs. them [situation],” says Laich of playing in enemy barns at this time of year. “It really unites a team, because everybody hates you. Everyone in that building, there’s 19,000 people in that building and it can really unite a team, I think.”
After eliminating the Bruins and defending Vezina and Conn Smythe Trophy-winning netminder Tim Thomas, the Caps now must go up against another one of the league’s top netminders in Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist is coming off his seventh straight season with 30 or more wins and a GAA of 2.43 or better. In 2011-12, Lundqvist posted a career best GAA of 1.97 and a career best save pct. of .930. He is a finalist for both the Vezina and Hart Trophies for this past season.
“The rest of the hockey games we play this year are going to be against a good goalie,” notes Laich. “You didn’t survive without that; that’s certainly a reason that we’re moving on, too. We’ve pre-scouted Lundqvist before. If he can see it, he’s going to save it. It’s up to our guys to make second and third opportunities for themselves.”
In each of the previous two postseason series between the Capitals and the Rangers, the Caps moved on by besting Lundqvist with a rookie goalie of their own in the nets. In 2009, it was Semyon Varlamov. In 2011, it was Michal Neuvirth. This spring, the Caps will look to a third rookie goaltender to help them get past Lundqvist and the Rangers.
Twenty-two-year-old Braden Holtby posted a 2.00 GAA and a .940 save pct. to help move the Caps past the Bruins in the first round. While he was stonewalling the defending champs, Lundqvist was doing the same to the Ottawa Senators. Lundqvist posted a 1.70 GAA and a .945 save pct. in the first round.
“I think he’s up for it,” says Caps left wing Jason Chimera of Holtby. “Look at last series, everyone didn’t give him a chance. He sure proved people wrong. I hope he keeps proving people wrong. We couldn’t be more proud of him and the way he played in the last series. I don’t see anything different. A lot of guys didn’t pick him outdueling Tim Thomas, that’s for sure. He did a bang-up job.”
New York’s backline features workhorse rearguards Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh, both of whom finished in the top 15 in average ice time per game by defensemen during the 2011-12 regular season. Like the Caps’ own shutdown duo of Karl Alzner and John Carlson, the tandem of Girardi and McDonagh played in all 82 regular-season games.
The Rangers’ top duo is not as physical as Boston’s top pair of Zdeno Chara and Dennis Seidenberg, but New York’s top twosome is effective in its own right.
“It is a little bit of a different look,” says Laich. “Chara with his size and his physical presence is a little different. These guys play very sound defensively. They block a lot of shots; they don’t give you good looks. So there are differences in that aspect.
“They’ve got a mobile defense. You look at the game [Thursday] night, Girardi and [Marc] Staal – who known as being shutdown guys – both get up on the rush and score goals, which ends up being the difference. They’ve got defensemen that go both ways – that play offense and defense – and it’s going to be a challenge for us.”
New York downed the Senators 2-1 in its Game 7 at MSG on Thursday. The Rangers became the first team since 1950 to win a Game 7 without getting a goal from a forward, and the Blueshirts’ series win is the first for coach John Tortorella since his Tampa Bay Lightning team won the 2004 Stanley Cup title.
“They’ll be ready, and we’re ready too,” says Chimera of the Rangers. “We feel like we’re in a really good place, our team is. We felt Boston was a really good steppingstone for us and we came through it pretty good. It was probably one of the best series I’ve been a part of; it was so close and every game was so intense.
“We’ve got to ramp that intensity right back up there. They’re going to be ready for us, because we’ve had their number in the past. But the past is the past, there are different players every year so it’s different teams.”