There seems to be a common misconception with this year’s edition of the Washington Capitals, especially post-trade deadline. That misconception is that this team plays no defense, is lazy, doesn’t play without the puck, has no leadership, and the Rangers will walk away easily with a series victory. It seems that many are overlooking the Caps as a serious first round opponent, despite the fact that they finished first in the Eastern Conference. This mentality is, well, wrong. The Caps are completely different this year, and if there is one year where they put it all together, this can be the year.
Don’t get me wrong, I think the Rangers can pull the upset. They have the goaltending, the defense, the grittiness, and the leadership to pull it off. But these are not the same Caps that the Rangers took three out of four from, and won two of those games by a score of 13-0. These caps made significant moves at the deadline, and perhaps the most overlooked is the acquisition of Jason Arnott from the Devils.
Per Elliotte Friedman, Arnott has complete control of that locker room. After his acquisition, he was “shocked” at how they played:
8. For all the talk about Washington’s improved system, Jason Arnott admitted he was shocked at how the Capitals looked without the puck during his first game with them. “I turned to someone and asked, ‘Is this the way we play?'” he said last week. “I was new, but I decided to say something. You don’t win the Stanley Cup like that.”
9. A few other Capitals pointed out Alexander Ovechkin really pays attention to Arnott, but that’s not what surprised them. “Even Semin listens,” one said.
Those are two very telling signs of a team that has clearly changed it’s M.O. Since Arnott’s acquisition, the Caps have gone 15-3-1. Since the Rangers beat them 6-0, they have gone 16-3-1, allowing more than three goals just twice. Clearly this is a different team. In fact, the Caps scored less goals than the Rangers, and allowed less goals than the Rangers over the course of the 82-game season.
Goaltending is their biggest question mark, with the combination of Michal Neuvirth –who will start Game 1– and Semyon Varlamov in net. Remember, the latter was Washington’s saving grace in 2009, when Jose Theodore forgot how to play goalie.
This is going to be a very hard fought series, and while I still think the Rangers are capable of pulling the upset, it is not going to be the cakewalk that everyone seems to expect. The Rangers match up very well against the Caps, and their gritty style that generates goals off a cycle generally keeps the Caps in their own zone. Sustained pressure can force the Caps off their newly found game and may cause them to revert back to their run-and-gun/no defense style. The Rangers will get in trouble if they back away from that game plan. I expect the Caps and the Rangers to have a very gritty series, and while I hope the Rangers pull it off, it is not going to be easy.