I’m a hockey fan, and it’s playoff season. Contrary to those Christmas carolers, this is the most wonderful time of the year.
While most of campus is starting to pack up the coats and bring out the shorts, there are a special few who are just now starting to wear their sweaters. They’re the same people who, for the past few weeks, have been declining your party invitations in favor of parking themselves in front of the TV to watch Comcast Sports Net or Versus. I’ve got my red sweater on and I haven’t left my apartment for anything other than food (or a sports bar) in almost a month.
Your hometown heroes, the Washington Capitals, have won the Southeast Division for the second year in a row and the fifth time in franchise history and they’ve clinched the second seed in the Eastern Conference. Starting on Wednesday night, they’ll begin a best-of-seven series against the seventh-seeded New York Rangers, with home advantage meaning if seven games are necessary for the victor to move into the second round, four of those games will be played at the Verizon Center in Washington, D.C.
The Capitals have played the Rangers four times this season, winning the regular season series with a record of 3-0-1, including a remarkable comeback from being down 4-0 in the third period on Dec. 23. They went on to win that game, by the way, a couple of minutes into overtime. That comeback matched the biggest in franchise history, and highlighted the Rangers’ biggest weakness: defense. However, a few things have changed since the Capitals last played the Rangers.
The entire National Hockey League seems to have been on a mission to prove that coaches are expendable, and while Bruce Boudreau of the Capitals was not affected, Tom Renney was. Renney was the Rangers’ coach the last time they and the Capitals met, and former Tampa Bay Lightning coach John Tortorella replaced him in late February. Tortorella’s coaching style displays itself in stark contrast to that of Renney, who is often said to have more concern for his players than the outcomes of matches. Tortorella however, is often doing and saying whatever it takes to propel his team to victory. His system clearly works- he coached the Tampa Bay Lightning to win the Stanley Cup in 2004, and his current club boasts a 12-7-2 record since the day he was hired.
Another point of difference from the Capitals’ and Rangers’ last match-up is the personnel gracing the ice. While Capitals General Manager George McPhee chose to make no moves at the trade deadline in an effort to build the confidence of his club, the Rangers staff did make a few moves. The Rangers added center Nik Antropov, as well as defenseman Derek Morris. More famously (or, perhaps, infamously), the Rangers claimed left wing Sean Avery off of reentry waivers a few days before the trade deadline.
Avery is known for being the NHL’s most notorious agitator, best remembered for waving his stick like a windshield wiper in the face of future-Hall of Fame goaltender Martin Brodeur while yelling “fatso!” during last year’s playoffs. More recently, Avery made pre-rehearsed distasteful remarks about an ex-girlfriend to an entire camera crew, compelling his team at the time, the Dallas Stars, to release him from his contract. After stewing in the American Hockey League for a few weeks, he was picked up by the Rangers, for whom he’d played from 2006 to 2008.
The last question for this first round match-up is that of who is between the pipes. The Rangers’ goalie, Henrik Lundqvist, is an all star, often referred to as “King Henrik.” The Capitals’ goalie, meanwhile, leaves something to be desired. Jose Theodore is a previous Vezina winner who just can’t seem to find his groove with a team other than the Montreal Canadiens, a team with which he spent ten years. Since he was traded to the Colorado Avalanche in 2006, Theodore has been regarded as a talented netminder who has, for lack of a better phrase, lost his mojo.
The Capitals picked up Theodore in July 2008, after they failed to retain the goalie who backstopped their run to the playoffs last year, Cristobal Huet. The acquisition of Theodore was a risky one, and he has provided the team with some brilliant performances, as well as some lackluster letdowns. Luckily for Theo, the Capitals can brag about their explosive offense, which frequently makes up for what the team lacks in net.
All in all, while some point to seeding or records to determine who is most likely to win a series, this is probably the best way in which to lose a pool. This is going to be an exciting series, especially since playoff hockey is fast, furious, and passionate. In the quest for the Cup, teams start playing differently, unnoticed individuals tend to step up, and there are almost always upsets. The Capitals have got a lot of preparation to do before they host the Rangers this wee, but if they play their cards right, I’ll be wearing that heavy red sweater well into May.