By Steve Silverman
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The Rangers have been pushed to the brink again by a team that didn't earn a playoff spot until the final week of the regular season.
But as has been shown many times in the NHL, regular-season results often mean very little when determining playoff outcome.
In the case of the Rangers and the Capitals, the only thing the regular season means is that they will play Game 7 at Madison Square Garden. That should be an advantage for the Rangers. In every other area of the game, these two teams have been virtually even.
In Game 6, they were not even. The Capitals were the desperate team and they played like they wanted to continue their season. Their transformation under head coach Dale Hunter has been remarkable. They have learned how to play defense, block shots, use their size and impose their will. Those concepts were all but ignored when Bruce Boudreau coached the team. They have shown they are a formidable opponent.
They are very solid right now, but they are not a better team than the Rangers. While they dominated the blocked shots stat in Game 6 – Washington held an eye-opening 24-6 advantage – that edge will likely shrink in the seventh game on Saturday night. The Rangers don't have to take a back seat in any defensive category to the Capitals. Washington has stepped up its game dramatically in the playoffs but the Rangers have been at a high level all year. Dan Girardi, Marc Staal and Ryan McDonagh form the heart of the defensive core and they will have to be at the top of their game. Michael Del Zotto is a major force, but his offensive contributions will almost certainly play more of a role than his ability to play the shut down role.
The Capitals scored early in Game 6 on Alex Ovechkin's dart before many of the fans had a chance to settle in their seats. While the Caps were on the power play, he simply had too much time and space before he fired his shot to the top left corner of the net. The Rangers and the Caps have been front runners in this series and that opening goal has been a dominating factor. The hockey Gods can turn that around at any point, but the team that has scored the first goal has won every game in this series.
Rangers captain Ryan Callahan knows that his team did not get off to an ideal start against Washington in Game 6. If the Rangers are going to get a positive result in Game 7, they can't afford to let the Caps get off to another first period lead. They have to match them stride for stride in the game's opening minutes and then use their depth to wear the Capitals down.
Much will come down to coaching and preparation. Hunter's impact in this area has been dramatic. There's a certain toughness and consistency to the Capitals' game that was never present in years past. But John Tortorella is not going to lose in this comparison. Having three days between games may actually work in the Rangers' favor. Tortorella was over the loss by the time he had taken his seat on the team plane for the return trip to New York. His ability to get his team to perform at its best will be tested again, but he has done it time and time again this year. The Rangers played their two best games against Ottawa in the first round when facing elimination and much of that is on Tortorella. There's no reason to think his team won't be prepared at the highest level again.
The most well-prepared player and the Rangers' best asset must be Henrik Lundqvist. He was the best goalie in the league and he is prepared for this moment. He is a Stanley Cup-winning caliber goalie. The Capitals have their young star in Braden Holtby, but he is not at Lundqvist's level. He feels good about himself after besting Boston's Tim Thomas in the opening round, but this year's Thomas is not as effective as this year's Lundqvist.
The Rangers have to believe that if they put enough pressure on Holtby they will get to him at one point or another. Lundqvist will face a formidable task, but it seems far more likely that he will be up to the job.
The waiting and the preparation has begun. It will seem interminable until the puck is finally dropped.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who's Better, Who's Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy).
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