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Rangers vs. Capitals first-round preview and prediction for 2024 NHL Playoffs

In Sports
April 17, 2024

The Rangers just finished their best-ever regular season. Now can they nab their first Stanley Cup in 30 years?

That pursuit starts this weekend with a first-round matchup with the Washington Capitals in the NHL Playoffs. The loaded Rangers, who won the Presidents’ Trophy and own home-ice advantage throughout the playoffs, should be huge favorites. But the Caps have been surprising folks – maybe even themselves – for weeks now, and grinded their way to the final playoff spot.

Washington (40-31-11) sold at the trade deadline, for crying out loud, and still got here. They have a minus-37 goal differential – worst among playoff teams – yet made it this far. For comparison, the Rangers’ goal differential is plus-53.

Now the Caps have a chance to topple a juggernaut, and they still have some Cup-seasoned players who remember what it was like to win it all in 2018. That’s a lot more recent than 1994, you know.

But the Rangers (55-23-4) are a complete team with a sharp goalie, relentless special teams and a knack for comebacks. Expectations are sky-high on Broadway after a sparkling season. Perhaps this is the postseason that makes everyone forget last year’s first-round clunker and how long it’s been since the Rangers won the Cup.

First the Blueshirts have to get through a series rife with subplots. Here’s a look at some of those and what might tilt the series:

The Power (Play) and the Glory?

Going into play Wednesday (there are still a few regular-season games going on around the league), the Rangers were ranked third on the power play, scoring on 26.4 percent of their tries, and the penalty kill, stopping 84.5 percent of opponent PP chances.

Both figure to be a big blue advantage against Washington, which ranked 17th on the PP and 18th on the PK, especially since open ice tends to shrink in rugged playoff hockey. The Rangers scored the fourth-most power-play goals in the league this year and their PP was a force for an offense that ranked seventh in goals per game (3.39). If you’re concerned about how the Rangers fare 5-on-5, special teams likely will be crucial.

Mar 26, 2024; New York, New York, USA; New York Rangers defenseman Adam Fox (23) celebrates his game winning goal against the Philadelphia Flyers with center Vincent Trocheck (16) during overtime at Madison Square Garden.

Ovi My Goodness

The Rangers will have to cope with all-timer Alex Ovechkin in the series. He may be 38 years old, but he’s still a dangerous goal-scorer (a team-best 31 this year, 853 in his career) who is a former Conn Smythe Trophy winner (2017-18).

He will be playing in his 15th playoffs since his debut in 2005-06 and has 72 career playoff goals, tied for 15th-most in NHL history. Ovechkin, T.J. Oshie, Nicklas Backstrom, Tom Wilson (more on him in a bit) and John Carlson all remain from the last Caps Cup team in 2018.

The Best of Bread

Artemi Panarin was the Rangers most electrifying player this season, pumping in 49 goals — a career-best — and adding 71 assists. His 120 points were also a career high, and he sat fourth in the NHL entering Wednesday.

There will be intense scrutiny on him in these playoffs, especially because he had a rough series last year against the Devils, managing only two assists in the seven-game loss. If he’s been using that as fuel for his season, wow. And what might he achieve if he’s using it as kindling for this run?

Brother Act

Charlie Lindgren, the brother of Rangers defenseman Ryan Lindgren, has emerged as the Caps’ goaltender, adding some familial intrigue to the series. Charlie Lindgren had a 2.67 goals-against average in 50 games this season and tied for the NHL lead with six shutouts. That’s two more than Igor Shesterkin.

But Shesterkin (2.58 GAA) represents an advantage in the goalie matchup for the Blueshirts, especially considering he has 28 games of playoff experience and Lindgren will be making his playoff debut. Still, one of Lindgren’s shutouts came against the Rangers — a 4-0 blanking on Dec. 9 — and he was 2-1 against the Blueshirts with a .955 save percentage and 1.35 GAA.

New York Rangers goaltender Igor Shesterkin (31) defends the net in the second period against the Ottawa Senators at Madison Square Garden

Old Home Week

Before he was hired by the Rangers, head coach Peter Laviolette was the Capitals’ coach from the 2020-21 season through 2022-23. Under Laviolette, the team went 115-78-27 and made the playoffs twice, but coach and team parted ways after they failed to make the playoffs last season.

Laviolette was hired by the Rangers to replace Gerard Gallant and Laviolette’s credo of generating competition every day, from training camp through practices to a big regular season, has helped put the Rangers here.

History Lessons

Washington traded Evgeny Kuznetsov, Anthony Mantha, and Joel Edmundson at the deadline, but – not so fast on that rebuild! – made the playoffs anyway. Impressive. This will be the 10th time the Rangers and Caps have met in the playoffs, and the Rangers have won five or those series, including the last three. They last met in the 2015 second round. This season, the teams split four games, each winning twice at home.

The Big Bad

There is a ready-made villain for this series – Wilson, the, um, controversial Caps forward who has a history of suspensions and is the NHL’s active leader in penalty minutes. There is ugly history between Wilson and the Rangers.

Late in 2021, Wilson hit former Ranger Pavel Buchnevich in the head when Buchnevich was down on the ice and then slammed Panarin to the ice when Panarin leapt to his teammate’s defense. Wilson was fined $5,000 by the league, but not suspended and the Rangers released a statement blasting the lack of suspension for a “horrifying act of violence” and saying the top player safety official was unfit for his role, which ultimately led to a $250,000 fine for the team. We’ll see if this all bleeds into the series.

Prediction

Rangers in five

The Capitals had to push to get to the playoffs, so they’ve been playing well. It’s enough to get them only one game off the best team in the league, though. The Rangers are clearly better. Panarin has leveled up and there are other scoring options, including tip-in savant Chris Kreider (39 goals) and the emergent Alexis Lafreniere (28 goals). Shesterkin soars, too, and the Rangers advance.

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