The New York Rangers were the Eastern Conference's best team in the regular season. The Washington Capitals, well, they were somewhat lucky to reach the regular-season finish line above the playoff cutoff, at seventh place. The two teams begin their quarterfinal series Saturday, familiar opponents, but with a reversal of storylines.
The last two times the Rangers advanced to the postseason -- 2009 and 2011 -- they did so as eight seeds. Their opponent in the first round was Washington. And the ultimate result was never a good one, as New York fell in seven games in 2009 and five games in 2011.
This is the first time in that stretch that the two teams will meet in the second round, and with the Rangers considered the top dog. The Capitals, however, are not a typical seven seed, ousting the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in seven games. Whereas the regular season was a little rough around the edges -- and quite disappointing as many pegged them as Cup favorites -- the postseason has been a breath of fresh air. The Caps are no joke and are playing their best hockey, in a time when that needs to be the case.
New York, on the other hand, wasn't at its best early in the first-round series with the Ottawa Senators that it, too, won in seven games. But it picked up the pace as the series came to a close, winning two games in a row to close it out.
What makes these Capitals so different from years past is that these guys are committed to doing the "little things" right and not relying just on pure offensive ability. Coach Dale Hunter has transformed this team -- that still has high flyers in Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom -- into one that is physical and blocks a ton of shots. They've, in a sense, become just like the Rangers. Nothing is clearer than the shot-blocking stat: New York sits at first in the playoffs with 155, and the Caps are second with 139.
The Rangers went 2-2 against the Capitals this year, the last one a 4-1 loss that came on the regular season's final day.
Let's take a look at some of the keys to this series:
1 - Goaltending: Henrik Lundqvist has been the backbone of the Rangers' success this season. He has continued that in the playoffs, putting up a 1.70 goals-against average and .945 save percentage. Even with his teammates blocking so many shots, he's still asked to make a number of big-time saves.
On the reverse side, rookie Braden Holtby has emerged as one of the best young goaltenders in the game during the playoffs. Quite simply, his efforts have almost single-handedly helped the Caps advance . He has a 2.00 goals-against average and .940 save percentage in the postseason. Holtby has proven to be capable of making saves on clean chances with ease. The key will be the Rangers getting traffic in front and causing a bit of confusion for the young goaltender. Holtby hasn't been rattled yet in these playoffs. What happens when he does? It would be beneficial for the Rangers to find out.
2 - Star forwards: Brad Richards has looked like a man on a mission as the first round heated up, and he finished the series with a team-high five points, two goals. Marian Gaborik, however, was a nonfactor, putting up only a goal in Game 1 and adding two assists. It's always important to get secondary scoring, but a hot Gaborik is a difference maker, who scored 41 times in the regular season. He and Richards clicking is a force that's hard to contain.
Alex Ovechkin had an underwhelming year for his standards with 38 goals and 65 points, but he leads the team with five points (two goals) in the playoffs -- even though he's been pretty quiet. The Rangers hope he stays that way and they know they must be physical and limit his space to be effective. A clicking Ovechkin could be the downfall for the Rangers. Nicklas Backstrom has also put up four points, one goal, in the series, but is among the best playmakers in the game. He's a guy you have to be aware of on the ice at all times.
3 - Special teams: The funny thing is, in first-round games that the Rangers scored a power play goal, they lost two of three. In fairness, they also lost because they gave up one on the penalty kill. Without a doubt, special teams are playoff-series changers. New York has scored five goals on 32 chances, while the Capitals have scored three on 19.The Caps have only yielded two goals on 23 times shorthanded, while new York has given up four on 26. In a series that could be very close, each special teams play is critical.
Will the Rangers wear down because of their style and the way coach John Tortorella deploys his players?
The Rangers are one of the most physical teams in the playoffs -- and they've been one of the more physical teams in all of hockey during the regular season. Tortorella has also played Mike Rupp, John Mitchell and Stu Bickel almost exclusively in the first period, as each have averaged about five minutes of ice time the entire first round Will the physical style, reliance on five defenseman and 10 forwards take its toll? That will be something to watch.
X-Factor: Chris Kreider. The rookie, who has played in five career games (all in the playoffs) has seen his role elevated over the past two games, playing 18:21 in the Game 7 win, even while the Rangers were protecting a lead. He has a goal already and has flashed his elite speed throughout -- but most of all, he hasn't been fazed by the big stage. This is the type of player that's hard to gameplan against. He and Carl Hagelin can chase down pucks with ease, only Kreider is also 6-foot-3, 225 pounds, with the ability to wreak havoc in front of the net.