2024 NHL playoff preview: New York Rangers vs. Washington Capitals

After five playoff series in a seven-year span, the New York Rangers and Washington Capitals haven’t seen each other in the postseason since 2015.

But that hasn’t put this rivalry on ice. There has been plenty of drama between these teams in the last nine years. It’s still Alex Ovechkin against Chris Kreider. But now, it’s also Peter Laviolette against the team he coached from 2020 to 2023. It’s a meeting of two of the hottest goalies in the second half of the season, Charlie Lindgren and Igor Shesterkin.

It’s the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Rangers against the Capitals, who fought their way back into the playoff picture to win East’s second wild card.

The odds

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Unsurprisingly, a series between a 114-point team and one that made the playoffs with a minus-37 goal differential (the sixth-worst mark in the league!) should be incredibly one-sided.

It may be surprising that the series isn’t even more lopsided, but that has more to do with the Rangers not being held in especially high regard by the model. Those reasons will become apparent throughout the preview, but they’re also unlikely to matter against a team as weak as the Capitals. This series should be a layup for the Rangers.

A 22-percent chance is far from nothing, though. Anything can happen in the Stanley Cup playoffs, and we’ve seen plenty of upsets of similar magnitude throughout the years. No team — not even the worst playoff team in recent memory — should be written off.

The odds are in New York’s favor, but that’s not something that’s held the Capitals back this season.

The numbers

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Let’s start with that Big Number for Washington: That minus-37 goal differential. A lot has been made of it, and for good reason — 25 teams have previously made the playoffs with a negative differential in the salary cap era and only five have made it past Round 1. Oh, and the Capitals’ minus-37 is the worst of the bunch.

Take out some of those early-season struggles and narrow things down to post-All Star break, and the number improves to minus-six. That’s fueled by their power play scoring a league-best 10.6 goals per 60. On the season, the Rangers have the power-play advantage, but the Capitals’ shooting rebound closes that gap.

The story is similar at five-on-five. Washington is below break-even in expected and actual goals. The Rangers aren’t that much ahead, but still edge out the Capitals. Focus on the Capitals’ post-All-Star play and the outlook is a lot better, with just a minus-0.25 expected goal differential. In that span, the Rangers are worse. This series could be closer than expected at five-on-five.

The Rangers have the shot-volume edge on both ends. The team generates more both off the rush and the forecheck, which brings balance to their approach. The real weapon is their high-danger passing, which may be undersold in their expected goal creation.

As much as the Capitals have improved in the second half, their defense is still weak, especially while short-handed. The Rangers have had their own defensive issues, especially post-All Star break, but tightened up down the stretch. The penalty kill has been a strength, but it’ll be tested against a red-hot Capitals power play.

The big question

Can Artemi Panarin keep up his career-best play when it counts?

The regular season was as good as it gets for Panarin. He put up a career-high 120 points over 82 games, thanks to a bump in goal-scoring. With 49 goals, he became more of a dual threat. The winger has always been known for his puck-moving ability, from his elite play in transition to his passing. But this year, upticks in shot volume and quality made a huge difference.

Power-play scoring was a factor, but Panarin’s five-on-five play elevated him to this level. The Rangers earned 54 percent of the expected goals share in his minutes, and much of that was thanks to New York pouring on the shots and quality chances for some of the best on-ice numbers of his career, with 0.50 more expected goals per 60 relative to his teammates and 0.63 more goals.

The big question is, what comes next? On paper, Panarin is far and away the most valuable forward in this series, with a plus-19 Net Rating, but his past dynamic regular-season performances haven’t always led to playoff success.

Last year was a prime example. Panarin only mustered two secondary assists in seven games before the Rangers were eliminated. His 2022 postseason underwhelmed as well, especially in Round 3 against the Lightning.

The playoffs haven’t always been a weak point for Panarin —in his last two seasons with Columbus, he played a pivotal role. That gives some indication that his struggles aren’t just a consequence of failing to rise to the occasion. It may also show that his playing style isn’t a fit for the postseason, either.  Still, Panarin has to find a way to translate his elite regular seasons to the playoffs.

There is reason to bet that happens this year. It stems from the improvements he’s made in his game — Panarin isn’t playing to the perimeter as much and is always moving his feet, which helps him drive to the scoring areas. That, paired with him becoming more of a shooter makes him a lot more challenging to predict and contain. It doesn’t hurt that his line also has more oomph than in years past, either.

Then there’s the change the Rangers made behind the bench. Under Gerard Gallant, it seemed that New York tried to limit risk as much as possible, instead of playing to its strengths. That meant fewer east-west passes and less ‘“stupid stuff at the blue line” for Panarin, when creativity and evasiveness, even in tight spaces, is part of what makes him so dangerous.

Adapting to the playoff environment is one thing, but limiting a star is another. So if Laviolette gives Panarin more leeway to play his game, that should help him shake those ghosts from playoffs past. If not, the Rangers’ season could end sooner than expected.

The X-factor

Can Charlie Lindgren channel his inner Jaroslav Halak?

You’d be hard-pressed to find an individual player more responsible for his team making the playoffs than Lindgren, who spent various chunks of the schedule stealing points for the Capitals. In his first 18 games, he put up a .927 save percentage and went 9-4-3. In his last three, all wins, he stopped 75 of the 78 shots he faced. In between, he was more than good enough, finishing 10th league-wide in Goals Saved Above expected (19.2) and tied for first in shutouts (six). His play against the two teams Washington wound up beating out in the Metropolitan Division, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, was also notably great — he had a .928 save percentage against both.

So, yes, he’s capable of pulling off a Halak-type performance. All an upset takes is three or four great games from a goalie, and Lindgren has already turned in more than his fair share. Capitals fans know this — because they, of course, watched their team get “Halak’d” by the man himself in 2010, when the then-Canadiens goalie stopped 131 of Washington’s 134 shots in games 5-7 of their first-round series.

The rosters

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Led by Panarin, the Rangers have a reliable top line that has been a primary source of offense.

Vincent Trocheck brings a pesky game that thrives in a playoff environment. He also has added utility and forechecking in what’s been one of his best seasons yet.

A shift to the right and time to cook in the top-six has helped Alexis Lafrenière break out. With Panarin and Trocheck setting him up, Lafrenière has picked up his shot and scoring-chance creation. But he also has been threading his teammates high-danger passes at one of the highest rates in the league. It all adds up to the Rangers creating 3.25 expected goals per 60 in their minutes with better results to match.

The question is how much offense the Rangers will generate when this combination is on the bench. Panarin’s line has outscored opponents 54-39. Without those three, New York has been outscored 81-89 with a sub-46 percent expected goals rate.

The next-best bet is the second line led by Mika Zibanejad and Chris Kreider. The problem is that these two haven’t produced as much as usual at five-on-five. Just 15 of Kreider’s 39 goals were scored at five-on-five, and Zibanejad’s goal output (eight) was uncharacteristically low.

Zibanejad picked up his shot volume after a slow start. Whether a heavier workload in his own end retrieving pucks slowed him down, or he was just deferring into a playmaking role too often, the Rangers need him to lean on his best weapon more often: his shot.

Right wing on that line has been a weak point. Blake Wheeler, Kaapo Kakko, and Jimmy Vesey all took reps there before Jack Roslovic filled the spot post-deadline. While he can help transport pucks, there’s room for improvement.

There is a wild card up front: Filip Chytil — if he’s healthy enough, after being sidelined much of the season. Chytil is back at practice and skating with the top-six. He would be an upgrade on the right to that top line, and add some lineup versatility as a center.

Trade deadline add Alex Wennberg has been a fit down the middle. His usage isn’t as extreme as it was in Seattle, but he’s proven, along with Will Cuylle and Kakko, that he can take on some matchup minutes. Those are usually reserved for Barclay Goodrow’s line, or Zibanejad’s. But having Wennberg as an option could free up Zibanejad and avoid a mismatch with that fourth line.

On the back end, Adam Fox leads the way. He’s having another excellent season, thanks to his all-around game. Fox’s vision and puck-moving help drive the Rangers’ offense. While he doesn’t look like the traditional shutdown defenseman — his partner, Ryan Lindgren, brings those old-school vibes — Fox helps shut down opponents with his positioning and stick work.

After 986 five-on-five minutes together this year for the Rangers, plus playing almost exclusively together over the last few seasons, K’Andre Miller and Jacob Trouba were split up at five-on-five. The two came into the season hot but quickly faded after the first month or so. Trouba’s play trailed off even more after returning from injury.  As a result, he’s down on the third pair with Erik Gustafsson, while Miller and Braden Schneider have made up a pretty stable second pair.

In goal, Igor Shesterkin is back to his usual elite ways. His start to the season was a bit rocky and January was an outright disaster. But since the All-Star break, he’s saved 17 goals above expected.

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With Ovechkin leading the way, the Capitals are a blend of their aging core and some young up-and-coming players under coach Spencer Carbery. Ovechkin’s line, with Connor McMichael and T.J. Oshie, is a prime example. McMichael is the puck-carrier on that line, between his play in transition and passing. Oshie usually excels in the playoffs, but the Capitals have been worse on both ends in his minutes this year, and he’s struggled to convert on his chances.

While that line has a slight edge in goals in their 137 minutes together, outscoring opponents 5-4, their offensive creation below the surface is really suspect.

The Capitals’ new-look top line of Dylan Strome, Tom Wilson and Aliaksei Protas has given the team a boost down the stretch.  Strome is a bit over-leveraged as Washington’s 1C, when he is more fitting in a 2C capacity. But between his high-danger passing and scoring-chance generation, he’s been one of the more reliable forwards.

Washington’s third line brings some potential for secondary scoring if they can find some puck luck. The fourth line doesn’t have much offensive upside, but there’s a reason the Capitals opted against moving Nic Dowd at the deadline. He’s an above-average 4C relative to other playoff teams who can be counted on defensively.

John Carlson remains a staple on defense for the Capitals. His production may not stack up to his peak years, but Carlson still boosts Washington’s offensive creation. That’s clear at five-on-five this season, where he has one of the best influences on the team’s expected and actual goal generation. With Martin Fehervary, the Capitals’ top pair is fine — it just isn’t contender-caliber.

The second pair falls even lower relative to other playoff teams, and that’s if Rasmus Sandin and Nick Jensen are healthy enough to play. Both defensemen were sidelined with upper-body injuries and are progressing, but it isn’t clear if either will be ready for Game 1. Even if they are, this is still going to be an uphill battle for the Capitals in their minutes, considering how little offense they create with these two deployed. Behind them, Alex Alexeyev and Trevor van Riemsdyk at least have earned a 53 percent expected goals rate, which is the best of their three mainstay combinations.

The key matchup

Matt Rempe vs. Tom Wilson — just kidding

Chris Kreider vs. Alex Ovechkin

Kreider’s first NHL games came during the 2012 postseason. That year, the Rangers beat the Caps in a six-game second-round series. Twelve years later, only Kreider, Ovechkin and Carlson remain, and while all three figure to be factors, we’ll focus on the left wingers. Both remain 30- or 40-goal capable. Both do their best work on the power play. And both just posted some of the weaker five-on-five numbers of their career.

That’s a steeper drop, and a bigger issue, for Ovechkin. The Caps scored just 40 percent of the goals when he was on the ice at five-on-five. Kreider, thanks in part to better linemates and stronger goaltending, is at 57 percent. The gap narrows a bit, though, when you compare expected goal shares; Ovechkin is at 46 percent, and Kreider is at 49.

The biggest difference is in expected goals against per 60; Ovechkin’s 3.17 is the worst mark in the series. Plenty of that, though, came with Evgeny Kuznetsov as his center — and Kuznetsov was traded for a reason. Since the deadline specifically, Ovechkin is over 50 percent in expected and actual goals, with eight goals and the 33rd-best per-60 rate in the league. Even at 38, he can still turn it up. Still, the Rangers figure to have more than their share of chances when he’s on the ice, and Kreider is capable of capitalizing.

The bottom line

Maybe life in Washington will come full circle and the Capitals will do their best impression of the 2010 Canadiens, defying the odds just a little longer.

More likely than not, though, this series will end exactly as everyone expects: with the Rangers using it as a tune-up toward a more worthy challenge.


How these projections work
How these projections performed last season


Evolving Hockey
Natural Stat Trick
Hockey Reference
All Three Zones Tracking by Corey Sznajder

(Top photo: John McCreary / NHLI via Getty Images)

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