Thursday, May 2, 2013

NHL 1st Round Predictions: Rangers vs. Caps

Every first round matchup has already begun except for the New York Rangers - Washington Capitals, which kicks into gear tonight (Thursday). So that's where I'll begin. It's been 19 years since the Rangers last won the Stanley Cup, which means if you are a Rangers fan, you and I have been frustrated before and after 1994.

Stepan has given the Rangers plenty of reason to celebrate

The Rangers had high hopes last season, but lost in the Eastern Conference finals to one of their chief rivals, the New Jersey Devils. The team struggled to score last year and it got even worse on the power play.  The Rangers were the #1 seed in the east last year, but for much of this season it didn't look like they would even make the playoffs.  Despite the acquisition of Rick Nash from the Columbus Blue Jackets, the team still struggled to score at even strength or with the man advantage. Last year's Veniza Trophy winner for best goalie, Henrik Lundquist, also struggled at times.  The Rangers finally did clinch a spot, in the final week no less, and actually moved up to the 6th spot in the seeding.

Moving out of the 8th seed was a big accomplishment in itself since it meant not having to face the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first round. The Rangers simply cannot handle Pittsburgh's game - especially with a healthy Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in the lineup. But back to the Pens at another time.

The Rangers closed out the season 10-3-1, due in large part to the emergence of Derek Stepan, who really stepped up his game down the stretch. Suddenly the Rangers are getting goals from different lines and even on the power play. Another deal with Columbus has paid off as well with contributions from Derrick Brassard and John Moore. The Rangers also got Derek Dorsett, who has not played due to injury, but the Rangers are hoping he can return from injuries in the post-season.

The Caps looked like a team that definitely wasn't going to make the playoffs after Alex Ovechkin got off to another sluggish start. Ovechkin was benched during crucial moments of the Rangers-Caps series in last season's seven game second round series. His 38 goals and 27 assists in 78 games gave him a career low 65 points for the regular season. He was also -8 and managed just nine points in 14 playoff games.

Ovechkin lit the lamp just 10 times times in the team's first 27 games this season, three of them in one game. But the old Ovie reappeared in the nick of time and scored 22 goals in the season's final 21 games to help the Caps win the Southeast division.  Troy Brouwer also made a big contribution with seven of his 19 goals coming with the opponent shorthanded.

The Caps also got better when the defense and goaltender Braden Holtby both improved. Holtby won nine of his last 10 starts and the Caps finished the season on a high note- 15-2-2.  The 23-year old played in all 14 playoff games last season.

And the winner is...the Rangers in 7 games. I expect a hard fought series with the Rangers defenseman and Lundquist making the difference.

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