Series Preview: Washington Capitals (2) vs. New York Rangers (7)

Our previews of the 2009 Stanley Cup playoffs' opening round, featuring pretty pictures and a special guest video by the great Steve Dangle at the end.

There's no question that Sean Avery earned the right to be an object of postseason obsession for the media heading into the New York Rangers' series against the Washington Capitals.

His love tap to Tim Thomas of the Boston Bruins hinted that the suspension reprogramming didn't take; and the last time Avery appeared in the postseason, he forced the NHL to edit its rulebook before giving the NY media a near-death experience.

That sets the bar for an encore rather high.

ESPN's Pierre LeBrun rated Avery vs. Alexander Ovechkin as the top storyline in the first round, writing that "it remains to be seen how often they'll be on the ice together, but when they are, will Avery target Ovechkin and try to get under his skin? And will Ovechkin let it get to him?"

Honestly, we'd be more concerned with Jose Theodore, who will have a good look at No. 16's back for much of the series; will he let it get to him? Or if Mike Green, the Capitals Norris-caliber defenseman, will allow himself to be goaded into silliness if he's tasked with guarding a line of Avery, Scott Gomez and Nik Antropov.

Avery could make his presence known, for better or worse, but he's not going to be the determining factor in this series. Here's the skinny on Southeast Division champs and a first-round foe that could be a tough out.

Season Series (Capitals won, 3-1)

Nov. 8: NY Rangers 1 at Washington Capitals 3
Dec. 23: Washington Capitals 5 at NY Rangers 4 (SO)
Jan. 3: NY Rangers 1 at Washington Capitals 2
Feb. 11: Washington Capitals 4 at NY Rangers 5

Forwards (Advantage: Washington)

Ovechkin finished with 56 goals and 110 points, winning the Richard Trophy though falling short of the Art Ross. Even if he isn't a consensus MVP, he'll likely still win the Hart with few condemnations. The goals he scores are frequently important ones and he's the team's offensive engine. His adventures in ego aside, it's hard to find a player more vital to his team on the ice and off. 

He was second on the Capitals with an average of 2.90 points per 60 minutes played; it was Alexander Semin who led the team with an average of 3.21, according to Behind the Net. Even after an injury derailed his torrid start, Semin saturated the score sheet with consistent and impressive offensive numbers during his best point production season (79 in 62 games ... yowzer) as a pro. 

While the Russians got the attention, all Nicklas Backstrom did this season was nearly increase his point production by 20 while increasing his power-play goal total by 11 ... all while playing 82 games of solid hockey as a sophomore.

What gives the Capitals a significant advantage here is not only the potency of their star power but the flexibility in the rest of the lineup to allow Coach Bruce Boudreau to reshape the roster when needed: With cagey veterans like Viktor Kozlov, Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander; foot soldiers like Brooks Laich Tomas Fleischmann and Eric Fehr.

By now, the offensive underachievement from the Rangers' forwards is the stuff of miserable legend. While it could be argued that Tom Renney's coaching style stifled players like Scott Gomez, Markus Naslund, Chris Drury (battling an injury, possible for Game One) and Nikolai Zherdev for most of the season, none of them found consistency after he left, either. On the other hand, Antropov has 13 points in 18 games for the Rangers since coming over from the Leafs.

While they can't outgun the Caps, the Rangers do have is some sandpaper: Avery, Ryan Callahan, Brandon Dubinsky, Blair Betts, Colton Orr, Lauri Korpikoski on the forecheck ... there are tenacious players in this group that are going to have to outwork the Capitals for the Rangers to win this series.

Defensemen (Advantage: Washington)

For all the chatter about Avery vs. Ovechkin, the more frequent battles will feature Ovechkin against the Rangers' Marc Staal, labeled by Coach John Tortorella as the team's shutdown defenseman. Staal also leads the Rangers defensemen in ice time (2:56) on the penalty kill, which is ranked second in the NHL. Michal Rozsival is the ice-time leader overall (22:30). Wade Redden is the leader in unmitigated loathing and disappointment. Paul Mara (plus-2), deadline addition Derek Morris (plus-3) and Dan Girardi (minus-13) fill out the blueline corps.

Mike Green finished the season averaging 25:45 per game, which is well over four minutes more than the next highest defenseman (former Ranger Tom Poti, currently injured). He's the NHL's best offensive defenseman this season, and his defensive lapses have been cut down over the last two years. He's trying to become the first Capital to win the Norris since Rod Langway, and the first to win it with a pronounced Mohawk since Red Kelly in 1954 (that might not be entirely accurate).

We made this point at the deadline, and we're not the only ones who did: Milan Jurcina and John Erskine are the muscle on the blueline for the Capitals, and that might not be enough to get it done in the postseason. Jeff Schultz has his moments, Shaone Morrisonn had a so-so year and Brian Pothier is fighting hard to prove that he's more than just Masterton Trophy bait on skates.

Green gives the Caps the nod here, but did we mention Wade Redden plays for the Rangers both teams have their issues.

Goalies (Advantage: New York)

Henrik Lundqvist's last two postseasons have been 10-games long, and the bad news for the Capitals is that he plays his best hockey in the first round. Even more than Ovechkin, Lundqvist is the series' difference-maker; if the Capitals pepper his substantial pads with rubber rather than going high where he's weaker, it becomes a King Henrik series. And the Rangers have a way of winning those.

The amateur psychology being applied to Jose Theodore at this point in the postseason is as troubling as the number of goals he's surrendered in the last two months. The Capitals don't need Theo to win this series for them; but the fans are certainly praying he doesn't lose it, either.  

If This Series Was a Movie, It Would Be ...

A beat-up palooka named Ovie faces off against gritty hoodlums in "Sin City":

(By B.D. Gallof of Islanders Independent.)

Power Play (Advantage: Washington)

The Washington Capitals are second in the NHL with a 25.2 conversion rate and three players (Ovechkin, Gree, Backstrom) with double-digit goals.

In comparison, the Rangers power play (13.9 percent) is like that liberal talk radio station in town that physically exists but doesn't actually have enough listeners to be measured in the ratings. If the Rangers' power-play is any sort of influential factor in this series, the Capitals are toast ...

Penalty Kill (Advantage: New York)

... and the only way that's going to happen is if a Capitals kill unit that's 17th in the NHL allows it to.

The Rangers, meanwhile, have the second-best kill in the NHL (87.6), thanks in no small part to Staal, Fredrik Sjostrom and Betts. As 5-Hole said: Outside of Lundqvist, the kill's been the best thing about the Rangers all season.

Fight We'd Love To See

While some would obviously love to see Avery goad Ovechkin into his second NHL "fight," there's really only one answer here: Semin/Staal II: The Bongos in the Congo.

(Honestly, can you still believe this actually happened in a professional hockey game?)

Coaches (Advantage: Even)

Boudreau had an underrated season, managing his talent well through some injuries and keeping his team motivated in a division whose outcome was never exactly in question. When the worst criticism levied at a coach is a momentary lapse in wit, it's been a good season for the Jack Adams winner.

Tortorella's impact on the Rangers was immediate if not dramatic; he righted the ship, motivated some players and the team is in the postseason. If his aggressive, puck possession offense works, it's a nice counterbalance to the Capitals' attack.

Of course, there's also a chance he'll unleash a profanity-filled tirade in DC that would make Rahm Emanuel blush. Which is why we're happy he's back.

Best Player Nicknames (Advantage: Washington)

The Rangers have King Henrik and Gomer. The Capitals have Ovie, AO, Alexander the Gr8 ... and that's just one player. There's also Mike "Game Over" Green, Donald "Brash" Brashear and others.

For the record, the unprintable nicknames for both Avery and Semin cancel each other out.

Home Ice (Advantage: Washington)

The Capitals have had some success at MSG, where the Rangers were 26-11-4 this season. But the Verizon Center was a loud, raucous house last postseason; a collegiate atmosphere of red-rocking fans that has fueled Washington to a 29-9-3 home record this season.

Essential Blogging

The Capitals have roughly 13,532,433 blogs, and those are just the active ones. Japers' Rink, On Frozen Blog, Capitals Kremlin, Homer McFanboy, The Peerless Prognosticator, Storming the Crease, Simply Sensational, A View of the Cheap Seats and Dump and Chase are a good start. There's also some dude named Ted that has a blog, too. We think he used to work for Prodigy or something. 

For the Rangers, visit 5-Hole,, Scotty Hockey, Hockey Rodent and The New York Rangers Blog.

Captains (Advantage: New York)

Capitals captain Chris Clark has been out since the end of January with wrist surgery. Rangers captain Chris Drury won the Little League Baseball World Series Championship. No. Contest.

Pests (Advantage: New York)

Have you heard of this Avery fellow? Digs fashion? Enjoys naughty quips? Used to carouse with the likes of Kim Bauer?

Part of the Avery/Ovechkin angle is the job Avery did on fellow Russian star Ilya Kovalchuk in their teams' first-rounder. Ovie and Kovy are two different players, but it's something to remember.

The Rangers also have guys like Ryan Callahan, Colton Orr and (if called upon) Aaron Voros to infuriate the opposition.

The Capitals have some tenacious forwards, but no one on the level of deviousness to match the Blueshirts pests.

Potential Unsung Heroes

Brooks Laich is perhaps the most anonymous 53-point player in the League. He's a solid two-way forward who can play up and down the lineup; the sort of aggressive forward that can make something happen. A player who deserves some respect beyond contributing his name to one of the greatest Philadelphia Flyers fan-made T-shirts of all time.

For the Rangers ... jeez, pick anyone from the third or fourth lines. Or, in some games, anyone who can actually put the puck in the net.

Prediction: Capitals in six.

The path to victory for the Rangers is simple: Lundqvist doesn't need to flop around like the fish at the end of the Faith No More video; he just needs to play solid positional goaltending and get inside the Capitals' heads within the first two games of the series.

But the Capitals have too much fire-power, and the Rangers too little, for that to happen. Sure, there might be some shenanigans from Avery or some momentary lapses of reason from Capitals players in reacting to it. But in the end, they've just got more juice than the Big Apple.

Take It Away YouTube Superstar Steve Dangle!

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