By Sarah Kwak
Feb. 17: Rangers 2, Capitals 1
March 10: Rangers 4, Capitals 1
March 24: Capitals 3, Rangers 2 (SO)
Capitals: C Brooks Laich (sports hernia, indefinite); RW Joel Ward (knee, indefinite)
Rangers: D Marc Staal (eye, indefinite); C Brian Boyle (leg, indefinite); RW Derek Dorsett (shoulder, day-to-day); LW Ryane Clowe (upper body, indefinite)
Washington’s keys to victory
So many things seem to be going right for the Capitals now after they began the season with a dreadful 2-8-1 start. Their magical second-half turnaround was largely about becoming familiar with a new coach, their third in 14 months. Without training camp and preseason games, Washington’s players estimated that it took the team about 20 games to begin feeling comfortable with coach Adam Oates’ system. Superstar Alex Ovechkin had an even bigger change to make, moving from left wing to right. But once the sniper began feeling more at ease in a new position, his production and confidence skyrocketed, and he launched himself back into Hart Trophy consideration as he scored 23 goals in his final 23 games. Washington’s power play has been lights-out all season, leading the league at 26.8 percent, but the penalty kill was another story (27th at 77.9), so in order for the Caps to succeed against New York, they will have to avoid taking penalties out of the frustration that comes from battling a tight-checking and relentless Rangers defense.
New York’s keys to victory
Lofty preseason expectations went largely unmet as the Rangers squeezed into the postseason in the final week. Part of their shortcomings has been their inconsistent and sometimes stagnant offense. This is a team that needs to be carried by its best players, not just its hardest workers. So for New York to succeed against the red-hot Caps, it will need goal production from its top line and a better success rate than 15.7 percent with the man advantage. The recent injury to Ryane Clowe, a deadline acquisition from San Jose who scored eight points in 12 games for New York, could hurt if stars like Brad Richards and Rick Nash don’t pick up the slack.
Washington in six: This series pits the East’s two hottest teams of April against each other: the Capitals, who went 11-1-1, and the Rangers, who finished the season on a 10-3-1 run. So each team will come into the postseason riding a wave of momentum. And since neither secured its playoff spot until the season’s final week, they’ve already tapped into their desperation mode, which promises a tight series. But the edge here goes to Washington, whose offense has looked unstoppable during the last six weeks. Ovechkin is back to being a one-man wrecking crew, and though goaltender Henrik Lundqvist can steal a game or two, the Rangers haven’t seen enough consistency from their best players to win a long series.