The two clubs are set to square off for the fourth time in the past five years, and last season's seven-game series in the Eastern Conference semifinals did not disappoint. This time around, the No. 3 Caps enjoy home-ice advantage after a remarkable second-half turnaround resurrected Washington from the depths of the conference and propelled it to yet another Southeast Division title.
With a terrific end to the regular season, Alex Ovechkin & Co. look to wreak havoc on the 6-seed Blueshirts, a team that entered the regular season as a popular pick to win the Stanley Cup but has failed to live up to expectations. With a 4-0 win against the New Jersey Devils on Saturday, the Rangers are also rolling into the postseason on a high note. And unlike last year, when they bore the crushing weight of the No. 1 seed, this time the Rangers have the opportunity to play spoiler.
1. No. 8 has to be great
Sure, it took a while for Ovechkin to heat up, but No. 8 has been lights-out since mid-March, when he sparked the Caps to their stunning climb up the Eastern Conference standings. With eight points (four goals, four assists) in the last four games of the regular season and 22 points (14 goals, eight assists) in April, Ovechkin enters the playoffs on a startling clip. Once his acclimation to rookie head coach Adam Oates' new system was complete, Ovechkin settled in and scorched his competition for his third Rocket Richard Trophy. The 27-year-old dynamo finished the regular season with 32 goals, three more than runner-up Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightning and four more than John Tavares of the New York Islanders. What does all this portend for the Rangers? As always, he'll be tough to defend. And to make matters worse for the Blueshirts, the shutdown pair the team has previously deployed to contain Ovechkin -- Dan Girardi and Marc Staal -- will likely not be available this time around because of injuries. Staal has not played since suffering an eye injury March 5, and has yet to narrow in on a return date. That leaves Rangers coach John Tortorella with some interesting decisions to make with his blue line. He admitted he might adjust his normal defensive pairings, depending on who the Rangers face in the first round.
2. The goaltenders will duel
Give the Rangers the distinct edge here, with the reigning Vezina Trophy winner in goal for New York. Henrik Lundqvist has looked just as sharp in the last month of the season as he did while leading the Rangers to the Eastern Conference finals last spring. In his 14th consecutive start (one in which he undoubtedly lobbied to play), Lundqvist made 20 saves to record his second shutout of the season and 51st of his career (surpassing Eddie Giacomin as the Rangers' all-time leader), a fine tune-up heading into Round 1 against the Capitals. But, as the Rangers know from last season's Amtrak series, Braden Holtby is no slouch. The 23-year-old netminder posted a 23-12-1 record this season, with a .920 save percentage, 2.58 goals-against average and four shutouts for the Caps, winning nine of his last 10 starts. The stingy Saskatchewan native surrendered more than two goals only twice throughout the seven-game series against the Rangers last spring and now has a full two rounds of playoff hockey under his belt.
3. Nash makes the dance
Bounced from the Eastern Conference finals last spring, the Rangers swung for the fences to land who they felt was the player who could put them in position as a Stanley Cup contender, landing star winger Rick Nash in a blockbuster trade with the Columbus Blue Jackets. Nash immediately changed the dynamic for the Rangers, providing a consistent, proven scoring threat on the wing who gives opponents fits. A big body with speed, skill and that enviable reach, Nash had a terrific first season on Broadway with his ninth consecutive 20-goal season (in a lockout-shortened 48-game schedule, no less). Now the team gets to see what he's capable of doing on the big stage, as he prepares for his second playoff series. "It's what I signed up for," Nash said of playing playoff hockey in New York. "There's not a bigger stage. I think great athletes love the pressure.
I'm sure most of the guys in this room understand what it's like to play in the playoffs here, but I'm about to find out fast."
With Nash's addition, however, came the loss of several key middle-of-the-lineup players who were critical to the Rangers' playoff success last season. Both Brandon Dubinsky and Artem Ansimov were shipped back to the Blue Jackets in the deal, while the Rangers also lost tough guy Brandon Prust and hard-nosed winger Ruslan Fedotenko to free agency. GM Glen Sather made a concerted effort to address those losses via the trade deadline this season, adding depth and grit to the team's lineup with the likes of Ryane Clowe, Derick Brassard, John Moore and Derek Dorsett. Now it's time for the Rangers to put it all together with their playoff hopes on the line.
4. Can Oates keep it up?
Holding his team together after an abysmal 2-8-1 start, Adam Oates has done a masterful job in his first season as head coach of the Capitals. The Hockey Hall of Famer stuck to his plan and didn't deviate from his system or structure, even when things were going poorly. That sort of unrelenting confidence in his team paid dividends, as the Caps eventually flourished under his leadership. Now, with the team's sixth straight playoff appearance, people will get a glimpse of what he can do in the postseason. This might be his first time leading the way behind the bench in the playoffs, but Oates has experience to draw from last spring, when the Devils made a surprising run to the Stanley Cup finals with Oates as an assistant coach. Plus, he has got quite the cast of stars under his helm. Beyond Ovechkin, the Caps boast a talented lineup that includes Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro and offensive defenseman Mike Green. The latter leads all defensemen in the league with 12 goals, despite playing 35 games this season. Green is also entering the playoffs on an absolute tear, with two goals and seven points over the past four games. Green is one of the reasons the Caps were first in the league on the power play with a 26.8 percent success rate.
5. The Blueshirts are banged up
Though Staal could return during the playoffs, the Rangers enter the tournament with a gaping hole on their blue line. The addition of rangy defenseman John Moore at the trade deadline was huge, but the team will still have a hard time replacing the skill, experience and steadiness cornerstone defenseman Staal provides. The Rangers might also be without Clowe for a stretch, a loss that would prove costly. The gritty 30-year-old winger was forced from Thursday's playoff-clinching loss with an undisclosed injury and has not played since. Part of the reason the Rangers pursued the long-time Shark at the deadline was for his postseason experience. Last week, Tortorella projected him to be a vital player: "He has the experience, he has the heavy body for it. He's done really good stuff along the wall for us since he's been here. His strengths are really important if you're looking to compete in the playoffs." The Rangers are already without Brian Boyle, who was terrific in Round 1 against the Senators last April. Meanwhile, the Caps are missing a few of their top guys as well. Veteran forward Brooks Laich recently underwent sports hernia surgery for an ailment that has been hampering him all season, the Washington Post reported, and will be sidelined until at least the second round. Although Joel Ward has not played since suffering a bruised knee April 7, he's aiming for the playoff opener. Ward scored a series-winning overtime goal in Game 7 to knock off the Bruins in the playoffs last season, so the Caps will be glad when they can get back one of their clutch playoff performers.
The Rangers' roster boasts an abundance of high-end talent, but the Capitals are the type of team you don't want to face in the first round -- a talented club peaking at the right time. Ovechkin, Backstrom, Green and the Caps' top-ranked power play will outmatch the Blueshirts in a tight seven-game series, with the Capitals getting revenge against the team that ended their playoff hopes last spring. Capitals in 7