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N.Y. Rangers vs. Capitals Game 7 preview: Can Blueshirts carry it home?

nyrangers011012_optBY SAM HITCHCOCK
NEWJERSEYNEWSROOM.COM
COMMENTARY

Purists hate these kinds of statistics because they see hockey as a game won by heart and perseverance. They would say that stupid facts like this one are a mere coincidence, that hard work can overcome the odds. However, I think there is something to take away from the fact that, since 1987 when the NHL began using the best-of-seven format in the playoffs, no Stanley Cup winner has had back-to-back Game 7’s in rounds one and two.

When I first read this stat, it brought me back to an interview I had seen with Wayne Gretzky during the regular season. He was reflecting on the Edmonton Oilers’ dynasty years, and saying how important it was to have at least one relatively easy series in the opening rounds because the playoffs are such a war of attrition. He alluded to the quick dispatch of Edmonton’s opponents in 1987 and 1988. Because their series ended quickly, he and his teammates got the all important extra rest and time for recovery.

But here we are, with both the Rangers and Capitals playing in their 14th game of this postseason for the chance to move on to the Eastern Conference finals. Their present series against each other has been incredibly hard fought, and so were their previous series against the Senators and Bruins, respectively.

Going back to Gretzky’s point, will these teams run out of gas because of the enormous amount of energy they have expended so far? Let’s tackle a few of the pressing issues, and I’ll try my best to answer this question at the end.

ISSUE 1:

My biggest pet peeve recently is sports personalities who generally focus on the NFL, NBA, and MLB, but feel compelled to talk hockey because it is the NHL playoffs. These talking heads love to say that everything that happens in the hockey postseason depends on goaltending. Well, goaltending is not the be-all-end-all of playoff success; there are a ton of other elements that go into a team advancing through each round. A goaltender can steal games, but a team effort is what wins a series. With all that said, the biggest issue by far heading into Game 7 is goaltending!

Henrik Lundqvist has been very good. But when you watch Mike Smith and Jonathan Quick in the Western Conference, Lundqvist’s game is not on par with theirs right now. Holtby has been his equal, and Ovie picked the right part of the net to shoot at when he fired home the first goal Tuesday. Speaking of Ovie…

ISSUE 2:

What a crazy hockey season it’s been. Nearly three months ago, it was former Capital, and current goaltending coach, Olaf Kolzig who suggested that hockey was not Ovie’s top priority, that he needed to be less concerned with his rock star status. Well, that seemed to wake Ovie up, because when the Capitals were fighting for that last playoff spot, he heated up in a big way and willed them into the postseason.

Then, Kolzig made the astute observation that Lundqvist can be beaten high- glove-side, and the Capitals have taken full advantage. Peppering that corner of the net, they are forcing him into facing his tiny weakness.

Kolzig seems to be the most unsung hero of the Capitals’ success. He should be given credit for the part his two crucial insights have played in their season’s turnaround and ascension. Also, how did no one in the Atlantic Division previously figure this out? All season Lundqvist has seen tons of rubber, but clearly not enough towards his high glove-side. When watching where Washington has beaten him on open shots, nearly all of them have come at the hands of his glove. Kind of astounding no other goaltending coach picked this up.

ISSUE 3:

Interesting wrinkle to throw out there. Too many people are saying this series will be won by the big offensive stars like Ovie, Gaborik, Backstrom, Richards, Semin, and Callahan. I disagree. I see Game 7 determined by the defensive studs both teams have.

Mike Green has completely regained his form as a top-end defensive option, and Jon Carlson, Karl Alzner, and Dennis Wideman have been terrific. Even the less celebrated warrior, Roman Hamrlik, has been quite good. Going into the series, I saw the defensive six being a big edge for New York because Wideman was abysmal in the first round, and Mike Green hadn’t showed that Norris Trophy-caliber play in quite some time. The Capitals were relying heavily on Clarkson and Alzner, and I was doubtful as to whether they could carry them through.

With Jeff Schultz filling in nicely as the Capitals’ sixth defenseman, and John Tortorella constantly wavering on what defenseman he can and cannot trust, the teams are dead even right now. Possibly, even Washington has the edge.

Something that should not be discounted: How the hell are some of the defensemen going to walk after this series finishes? Ryan McDonagh has played 354 minutes so far. Dan Girardi has played 361. Michael Del Zotto has played 296. Marc Staal is at 329. Washington’s D’s total minutes are pretty grizzly, too. This will definitely be a factor for the eventual winner.

CLOSING THOUGHTS:

Home ice for the Rangers is huge because when Ovie and Backstrom are out there, Tortorella has the final line change. Going into the postseason, if I had been held at gunpoint and forced to pick my Stanley Cup finalists, I would have said New York versus St. Louis. Well, that clearly didn’t work out in the West, but I still think the Rangers have some magic in them. This team has a toughness that has gotten them through a grueling season and nearly won them the President’s Trophy. Lundqvist does not necessarily need to outplay Holtby, but he definitely needs to match him. I think the Blueshirts carry it home.

Rangers 3, Caps 2.

 

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