This weekend marks both a beginning and end in the 2012 Stanley Cup Playoffs, as a pivotal Game 7 will determine the Eastern Conference Finals matchup just a day before the battle for Western Conference supremacy begins.
On Saturday night, the top-seeded New York Rangers are back home in Madison Square Garden to welcome the upstart Washington Capitals, who forced the deciding game with a 2-1 win in Game 6 on Wednesday that featured stellar performances from captain Alex Ovechkin and goaltender Braden Holtby.
On the opposite side of the continent, Pacific Division rivals Phoenix and Los Angeles will kick off their Western Conference Finals series. After both struggled to even make it into the playoffs a bit more than a month ago, the Kings and Coyotes are playing their best hockey of the season when it matters most.
Here are five things to keep in mind as the drama unfolds this weekend:
1. Though both the Rangers and Caps won Game 7's to advance past the quarterfinals, neither do well historically in the series finale as a franchise. New York is 4-5 in franchise history and Washington is 3-7 all time in Game 7.
2. The rookie goaltender Holtby has been the surprise of the playoffs up to this point, in part for his resiliency after losses. In 29 career regular season and playoff starts, Holtby has yet to lose consecutive games.
3. Alex Ovechkin set yet another record mark when his one-time blast gave the Caps a 1-0 lead Wednesday night. The Russian became the first player to score 30 goals in his first 50 playoff games since Joe Sakic accomplished the feat 15 years ago.
4. There's no doubt this Game 7 will be a physical grudge match. The Rangers and Caps are ranked first and second among playoff teams in hits, blocked shots and takeaways.
5. Remember that air-tight Pacific Division from the regular season? So do the Kings and Coyotes. The two split their season series and three of the six encounters went past regulation. The Kings do hold an edge, however slight, in the series goal differential: 13 to 12.
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