What a difference a year makes.
As we enter the new playoff season, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals are simply not the same kind of teams they were going into last year's playoffs. And it means everything to how I feel this opening round matchup will play out.
In 2009-10, Washington's offense blew away the field, coming in 3rd in the NHL in shots-for but coming in 1st in shooting percentage, total goals, totals assists, total powerplay points, and generating nearly 32 shots per 60 minutes of 5-on-5 play. Their defense left something to be desired, coming in 18th in shots-against per 60 minutes of 5-on-5, but essentially middle-of-the-pack if you consider score effects across 54 wins that year. To make matters worse, the goaltending was mediocre at best. This year, we see a more defensive team, still about two shots ahead in 5-on-5 Corsi, but in this case coming in at a hair under 30 shots-for and a hair over 28 shots-against per 60 minutes. The team that dominated across the board in offensive categories the previous year came in 12th in the league in shots-for and 24th in shooting percentage, though the trade-off was Roberto Luongo-like numbers out of a three-headed goalie monster (48-23-11, 2.29 GAA, .920 SV%, 8 SHO). Players like Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin have been given tougher zone starts than they had received at any prior point of their career, and they've responded by posting near-exact same Corsi numbers at 5-on-5 play (though it's worth noting that their Quality of Competition has dropped from most difficult on the team last year to middle-of-the-team this year). They've also given full-time minutes to an impressive hard-minutes rookie defenseman in John Carlson, and spent nearly half the year resting much of the offensive responsibilities upon the forward lines during the absence of Mike Green. The Mike Green that will return for the playoffs, like Ovechkin and Backstrom, has seen a dip in his zone starts (from 57% to 52%) and has responded with an even better Corsi Rel than the previous year. On the outside, this looks like a Capitals team with chinks in the armor, but the numbers suggest to me that this team has developed its top players more this year than it has in the previous three. Will the goaltending matter? Sure, it always does when your results can hinge on 7 games or less. But by reducing shots and having shooting talent that is a bit worse than 2009-10 but probably better than 2010-11, they are doing all the right things to increase their odds.
New York, on the surface, looks like the same team they were last year. 19th in shots-for both years, 14th and 10th in shots-against in 2009-10 and 2010-11 respectively...even their 5-on-5 Corsi is roughly the same (29.2 / 29.6 SF/SA per 60 in 2009-10; 29.2 / 29.2 SF/SA in 2010-11). Surprise, surprise: Henrik Lundqvist can still steal games, and Marian Gaborik still can't weave together two full healthy seasons. The true surprise, though, is at the center of the main difference between this year's Rangers and last year's: Gaborik has not been the primary driver of the offense. Instead, his struggles with injury and a shooting percentage that dipped below 15% for the first time in seven years (11.5%) resulted in one full minute more of PP time for Brandon Dubinsky and an opportunity for young forwards like Artem Anisimov and Derek Stepan to get some cushy minutes. Callahan received roughly the same minutes, but took full advantage of an uptick in zone starts (from 44% to 47%) to post some of the best numbers of his career. On defense, the Rangers entered the year with an unsettled and young defensive corps, only to emerge with a slightly better, more stable group than last year. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal have taken on the toughest minutes on the team, and though they both aren't quite the defensive shutdown pair you'd ideally want (Corsi Rel Girardi: -8.9, Corsi Rel Staal: -4.5), they've actually improved their Corsi Rel from last year despite seeing an increase in Quality of Competition and a drastic drop in Quality of Teammates. Young players Ryan McDonagh and Mike Sauer have played well with relatively-easy minutes, posting positive Corsi numbers at 5-on-5 and positive zone shifts while getting zone starts of roughly 50.5%. In sum, the Rangers have a less-volatile defensive situation than last year, but a set of forwards in flux (particularly with the Callahan injury), to the point that it's hard to say who's going to score the next goal.
When it comes to this matchup, the improved Capitals defense / non-catastrophic goaltending and the Rangers steady-but-young defense / Henrik Lundqvist is nearly a wash; the big difference is offense. We know Washington has a pretty solid offense even in an off-year; we also know that the Rangers' offense is average (if you're a sceptic, average at best). I'm seeing the Rangers defense and Lundqvist steal a couple of games, but the more-complete Capitals being a tougher playoff team this year than years past. Capitals in 6 games.
P.S. George Ays over at Blueshirt Banter has a very good preview of the series with a bit more data.