Rangers-Capitals Now a Playoff Tradition

It’s the third day of the NHL playoffs and the Rangers have yet to play a game. At this point it feels like the fourth Rangers-Capitals series in five years might never start, but then again maybe it’s a good thing that they waited until Thursday since there won’t be two days off between games at any point in the series.

Kevin Klein of Japers’ Rink joined me for an email exchange to talk about the Rangers-Capitals series and how Adam Oates brought the Capitals back to prominence and how the new head coach was able to get Alex Ovechkin back into the conversation of “Best Player in the World.” We also give our predictions for the series.

Keefe: Four years ago, I was petrified of the idea of a Rangers-Capitals series, and my worrying was proved right when the Rangers blew a 3-1 series lead.

Two years ago, I didn’t expect anything good to come from a Rangers-Capitals series with a Rangers team that couldn’t score and found their way into the playoffs on the last day of the season thanks to some outside help. Again, the Capitals had their way with the Rangers in five games and embarrassed the MSG crowd by erasing a three-goal, third-period deficit while silencing the Bruce Boudreau chants.

Last year, I wanted no part of the Capitals in the first round and no part of them in the playoffs at all. It wasn’t the same Capitals team from 2008-09, but even with a new look and style of play they forced the No. 1-seeded Rangers to a seventh game and if it weren’t for some late-game heroics from the Rangers in the series they would have eliminated the Rangers once again.

This year I feel lucky the Rangers are playing the Capitals. I’m not sure if it’s because the other two options would have been the Penguins and Canadiens, who have both dominated the Rangers in recent years, or if it’s because the Rangers were finally able to eliminate the Capitals last year. Then again, it’s never good to get a good feeling about the Rangers, especially when it comes to the postseason and who their first-round opponent might be. So before we pick this series apart piece by piece prior to Game 1, maybe you can help bring me back to reality and why I shouldn’t feel so confident about the Rangers getting the Capitals in the quarterfinals and feeling like everything magically fell into place for the Rangers over the weekend.

Klein: It’s funny you should feel lucky to face this year’s Capitals, when you feared last year’s.

This year’s Capitals boast the most lethal power play in the NHL (by more than two full percentage points) and Alex Ovechkin is back to his old self, racking up 32 goals in 48 games. Two years ago, when the Capitals ousted the Rangers in the first round, Ovechkin had 32 goals in 79 games. It’s certainly worth noting that Ovechkin’s resurgence would not have been possible without his running mate, Nicklas Backstrom, who returned to form in time with Ovi, to the tune of 40 assists in 48 games (good enough for third in the league and only three helpers off the league lead). I’ll also add that Troy Brouwer and Mike Ribeiro are having career years on the second line, so once Ovi and Backstrom hop back onto the bench, the Rangers still have their work cut out for them.

Dropping back to the blue line, last season the Rangers had the luxury of facing off against Roman Hamrlik and Jeff Schultz, two defensemen who – as you well know by now in the case of Hamrlik – aren’t exactly known for their mobility these days. It’s my presumption that Schultz and Hamrlik will be watching the games together from the Verizon Center and Madison Square Garden press boxes, a fact that most singularly improves this Capitals team over last year’s squad.

But the Capitals’ improvements never would have occurred if not for the mind of the man behind the bench. Indeed, it was Adam Oates who redesigned the power play, taking it from the middle of the pack to the pinnacle of the league. Indeed, it was Adam Oates who envisioned Ovechkin on the right wing, where he has since re-established himself as the league’s premier goal scorer. And indeed, it was Adam Oates who was standing behind the New Jersey bench last year when the Devils ushered the top-seeded Rangers unceremoniously into the offseason.

These are the reasons why you should perhaps not feel so confident. This isn’t to say that I feel confident about the Capitals’ chances against a Rangers team that played very well down the stretch, but rather to illuminate that this Capitals team should be a more fearsome opponent than last season’s.

Keefe: OK, well I just went from overly confident to terrified. Thanks?

When it comes to Roman Hamrlik, I can understand what you mean since I’m not sure how the Rangers thought the Capitals’ trash would become their reward when it comes to a 39-year-old defenseman with as many miles (1,395 regular-season games and 111 playoff games) as Hamrlik has. The man played in his first NHL game in 1992! 1992! Sure, Jaromir Jagr is still playing and he played in his first game in 1990, but he’s Jaromir Jagr and he’s playing an elite level for a 41-year-old (35 points in 45 regular-season games).

You’re right, I should be worried about Ovechkin wanting to once again be in the “Best Player in the World” conversation again and the way he has responded to Adam Oates’ coaching. With Bruce Boudreau it seemed like Ovechkin was allowed to do whatever he wanted (and rightfully so I would say), but it got to the point where Boudreau’s style became stale, not only with Ovechkin, but the entire team. With Dale Hunter, the way Ovechkin had played his entire life was changed and it took away from what makes him who he is and why he’s great. But with Oates it seems like Ovechkin finally has a coach with the right balance. And Oates’ success behind the Capitals’ bench is intriguing especially since it seems so easy for fans to respect and appreciate someone like him. Here in New York it’s not as easy to respect and appreciate John Tortorella.

How refreshing has it been to have Oates as the head coach of the Capitals?

Klein: I think that just about everyone inside of, around and in the peripherals of the Washington Capitals organization has come to the realization that Adam Oates is the best thing that’s happened to this franchise in quite awhile. Not to beat a dead horse here, but it absolutely starts with Alex Ovechkin.

In hindsight, Alex probably had a decent relationship with Bruce Boudreau that slowly degraded as the team began to struggle. We know that he didn’t have the best of relationships with Dale Hunter, and that’s because Hunter stymied Ovechkin in his insistence that Ovechkin take on the same roles and responsibilities of, say, a guy like Hunter did during his playing days.

When Oates came aboard, he embraced the idea of Ovechkin as the chassis for the Capitals vehicle. From the get-go he saw the potential for success under such a model, so long as Ovechkin was open to some considerable tweaks in his game. Oates immediately established a communicative, two-way relationship with his captain and Ovechkin has responded brilliantly. Now Oates has a happy captain, a happy locker room and inside that locker room there is a sense of trust and harmony that has been absent for a couple of years now.

It was by no means a caustic environment before, but it certainly was not as cohesive as it is now, and I attribute that coming together to Adam Oates.

Keefe: Well you’re lucky. Here we have a coach who feels entitled because of what he did in Tampa Bay nine years ago and doesn’t care that in four years here he has made it out of the first round once, made it to the playoffs twice and missed them completely the other time … despite having the best goalie in the world in his prime. No big deal.

Last season, and even the season before, Ovechkin wasn’t the same Ovechkin we had grown accustomed to. It seemed like years since a real debate could be had between who was between Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby and his postseason play wasn’t the same either. Now he’s back to pre-2010-11 Ovechkin and alone could be enough to eliminate the Rangers with the way they go into scoring slumps for extended periods of time and take untimely and undisciplined penalties.

Earlier in the season there was speculation that maybe Ovechkin needed a change of scenery and a new team, which had me wondering if the Rangers would be able to figure out a way to pay Rick Nash, Marian Gaborik and possibly Ovechkin if they had anything left to trade for him. Now with the regular season he just had and the success he experienced under Oates that dream of mine, sadly, will never come to fruition. But maybe it’s for the better since I’m a Crosby guy anyway.

When things were going poorly in Washington, did you ever think that Ovechkin might not possibly find his old scoring ability again and d did you ever think that maybe a change of scenery was needed for him?

Klein: Well, I hate to tell you, but your dream of a Nash-Gaborik-Ovechkin tandem would have been foiled by Brad Richards’ nauseating contract. As for Ovechkin needing a change of scenery, I don’t buy it. Any of that talk was more than likely born of a bored, starved, media market or sensationalist hockey pundits.

Did I ever worry that Ovechkin wouldn’t return to form? Sure, but I’ve been preaching for some time that Ovechkin’s decline in production was a result of the changeover and resultant inconsistency in on-ice philosophy from the end of the Boudreau era to the start of the Oates era. I thought that last year, despite the sour aroma that came with discussions of his play, Ovechkin demonstrated tremendous capability in scoring 38 goals while playing most of the season under the not exactly offensively-minded Dale Hunter.

Besides, the guy has the “C” on his jersey and has only worn it for a few years now. If an organization slaps that letter on a jersey then ships the player away, it probably speaks more to the organization than it does to the individual.

Keefe: So you’re saying the Flyers aren’t exactly run by the most intelligent people for trading their captain, Mike Richards, and then watching him win the Cup that same season with the Kings? Hey, if you’re anti-Philadelphia, you’re talking to the right person.

This Rangers-Capitals series is being regarded as the best first-round series in the playoffs and I think rightfully so. You saw what the Penguins did to the Islanders and what the Bruins did to the Maple Leafs on Wednesday night, and outside of Canada, the Canadiens-Senators series just isn’t that intriguing.

My confidence prior to the start of this email exchange has cooled off with thoughts of Ovechkin becoming Ovechkin again, the feared Washington power play and the idea that Oates, a rookie head coach, could outcoach Tortorella in the series.

The Capitals have the scoring depth and secondary scoring depth with three point-per-game guys leading the way, but to me, the Rangers are the all-around deeper team (not necessarily when it comes to putting the puck in the net) and with Henrik Lundqvist as the backbone I believe they are the better team. However, I live in New York, so of course I’m going to believe this.

The Rangers enter the series after a 10-3-1 April and the Capitals come in even better after an 11-1-1 April. Outside of Pittsburgh, who no one might stop, we have the league’s two hottest teams meeting in the postseason for the fourth time in five years. I’d like to think this Rangers team is better than the team that won the series in seven games a year ago and much better than the teams that lost in five games and blew a 3-1 series lead three and four years ago. But the Rangers are a lot like the New York Football Giants in that the second you start to feel confident about them they let you down in the most devastating way possible.

I’m going with the Rangers in five games, which I’m sure will get a sarcastic laugh out of you, and really given the information I have, might be a ridiculous pick. But eff it! Rangers in five.

Klein: Picking the Rangers in five is certainly … optimistic. I don’t doubt that the Rangers have a very solid lineup from top to bottom, especially through the forward ranks (but if you’re not going to measure depth by production, I’m not certain what the best way is), but I think the injury to Marc Staal leaves them exploitable outside the top pairing of Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonough.

I personally have the Caps in six, but in order for that to come true they’re going to need to be the more disciplined team on the ice. This season was the first time in 16 years that the Capitals drew more penalties than they took and that’s only because Boston went to the box three times in the third period of the final game of the schedule. I should also point out that as great as Henrik Lundqvist is, as has been for a long time, Braden Holtby’s early measurables in career save percentage and goals against average are eerily similar.

If both goalies show up in the same way they did last year, I wouldn’t be surprised to be chewing my nails down to nubs during another Game 7.

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Neil Keefe is the founder and editor-in-chief of Keefe To The City along with writing columns and hosting podcasts. He has written for WFAN.com and CBSNewYork.com since February 2010.

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