The Washington Capitals appeared headed for a playoff-free season when they visited the Winnipeg Jets for back-to-back games on March 21-22. Washington won both and never looked back, going 15-2-2 in its final 19 games to win the Southeast Division going away. Alex Ovechkin led the NHL with 32 goals, including 19 in that season-ending stretch. Braden Holtby emerged as a solid No. 1 goaltender, and the return to form of defenseman Mike Green helped give the Capitals the NHL's most dangerous power play (26.8 percent).
The New York Rangers also ended the season on a roll, going 10-3-1 in April to climb all the way to the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference. Henrik Lundqvist is a rock in goal, the top four on defense is as solid as anyone's, even without injured Marc Staal, and the forward lines have sorted themselves into a working order. The unit of Rick Nash, Derek Stepan and Carl Hagelin has been one of the hottest in the League, and Brad Richards' revival has given New York a second unit that can put the puck in the net.
The teams played a memorable second-round series last season; every game but the first was decided by one goal. The Rangers won twice in overtime before taking Game 7 at home, 2-1. If the teams go to a seventh game this time, the third-seeded Capitals will be at home.
Depth was an issue for the Rangers all season, and several moves throughout the season helped them improve in that area.
The team's top forwards are all familiar names -- Nash, Richards, Stepan, Ryan Callahan and Carl Hagelin usually are floating between the top two lines -- but some new faces acquired during the season have provided a boost. Left wing Ryane Clowe has three goals since he was picked up from the San Jose Sharks at the NHL Trade Deadline for draft picks, and Derick Brassard has been averaging a point per game since coming to New York from the Columbus Blue Jackets in the Marian Gaborik trade.
Brian Boyle and Taylor Pyatt provide size on the lower lines, and Mats Zuccarello has been playing mostly on the top line since rejoining the Rangers a month ago and he has also been a boon on the power play. Chris Kreider hasn't been the Calder Trophy candidate many believed he would be, but he proved last season he could be a force in the playoffs.
Darroll Powe hasn't registered a point in 32 games, but he contributes on the penalty kill as an adept shot blocker. Arron Asham has dealt with back issues and has two goals in 26 games. As a fighter, he could be the odd man out at times during the postseason.
Derek Dorsett hasn't played since coming from Columbus in the Gaborik trade because of a collarbone injury, but he should be available during the first round.
Ovechkin led the NHL in goals for a third time and could win his third Hart Trophy as League MVP. Nicklas Backstrom had more assists after March 1 (27) than any member of the New York Rangers had all season. Marcus Johansson blossomed as a productive third wheel on the top line.
The second line could be the key for a deep playoff run. Mike Ribeiro was extremely productive, especially on the power play, and Troy Brouwer did a fair Alexander Semin impersonation, at least from a production standpoint. Newcomer Martin Erat gives the Capitals a complete and dangerous top six.
Washington could really use versatile Brooks Laich, but he may not be available until the second round because of an ongoing groin problem. Game 7 overtime hero from a year ago, Joel Ward, also could be late to the dance because of a knee injury. With those two, the Capitals have enviable depth. Without them, they have just enough depth, which includes valuable role players Matt Hendricks and Jay Beagle.
A point of strength during the Rangers' run to the Eastern Conference Finals last year, the group has had its share of struggles and health issues this season.
Dan Girardi was an all-star last season but hasn't been as sharp in his end this season. Ryan McDonagh was moved down to the second pairing to lighten the intensity of his workload, which allowed Staal to excel in bigger minutes against stronger competition. However, a severe eye injury cost Staal half the season and how he plays upon returning is a major question.
Michael Del Zotto has improved greatly during the second half of the season, showing more confidence and better judgment when it comes to joining the attack. Anton Stralman has been steady on the second pairing, no matter his partner.
Steve Eminger was a healthy scratch for most of the first month, but with Staal out, he has held his own. John Moore was picked up in the Gaborik trade and has solidified the back end. Moore has been earning time on the power play and seems likely to stay in the lineup after Staal returns.
Karl Alzner and John Carlson have unofficially been Washington's top pairing since about Game 4 of the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, but really earned that distinction midway through the 2010-11 campaign. They have not played together much this season, and their ability to excel away from each other has given the Capitals the ability to have two solid pairings.
Green is again an elite offensive force, and John Erskine and Steve Oleksy have been big surprises, for different reasons -- Erskine setting a career high in time on ice per game, and Oleksy emerging as a 27-year-old career minor leaguer. Jeff Schultz provides depth behind Jack Hillen, and Dmitry Orlov still holds a lot of promise for the future, but this team won't survive multiple injuries on the back end (and one to any of the top three could be crippling).
Lundqvist got off to a rough start, but his play during the rest of the season will likely make him a finalist for the Vezina Trophy for the fifth time.
He finished the season with a 2.05 goals-against average and .926 save percentage, not far off from his numbers that won him the Vezina last season: 39-18-5, 1.97, .930. Lundqvist had a rough January, going 3-4-0 with a 2.79 GAA and .904 save percentage. But with the Rangers needing a strong push in April to reach the postseason, Lundqvist delivered in a big way.
Martin Biron is the backup, and though he played enough games to give Lundqvist his lightest workload as a starter a season ago, he's barely seen the ice this year. Biron made five starts, with a 2.32 GAA and .917 save percentage.
Holtby is locked in, and has played much better after the first 10 or 12 games of this season. He proved the big stage doesn't bother him last year and could be the anchor for a long run in 2013.
Michal Neuvirth had a nice NHL postseason once upon a time (in 2011), but like the rest of the Capitals was undone in the second round. He's a quality option as Plan B.
John Tortorella arrived in New York four years ago and took over a team that lacked toughness and an identity. As he takes his team to the playoffs for a third straight season, he has the Rangers playing a physical, defensively responsible brand of hockey.
It's all about shot blocking and taking care of your own end with the Rangers, a big reason Gaborik was jettisoned to the Blue Jackets. If the Rangers can score some goals, they could make another deep run.
Adam Oates is a first-time NHL coach, but he has proven a lot in a short amount of time in Washington. The players stuck with him after a brutal start to the season, and he's shown the ability to coax improvements out of players of all along the talent spectrum.
This will be the first chance to see him truly go toe-to-toe with another NHL coach in a short series of adjustments and line changes and game plans, but don't expect the Capitals to think they are at a disadvantage. They've beaten that guy behind the other bench three times in the playoffs.
For the second straight season, the Rangers finished in the bottom third of the League on the power play. Their best finish with the man advantage under Tortorella was No. 14 in 2009-10.
This season, the Rangers finished No. 23 at 15.7 percent. But in April, the Rangers showed signs of life with the extra man, going 9-for-49 (18.4 percent) down the stretch.
The Rangers' penalty kill also took a step backward this season, not an unexpected result after losing many penalty-killing forwards during the offseason. After finishing fifth a year ago, they dropped to No. 15 this season.
The importance of special teams is magnified in the playoffs, and if the Rangers don't improve on both sides of the ledger, it could be a swift exit for them.
Washington's power play was fantastic all season long, even when every other aspect of the team stunk for the first few weeks of the season. The Capitals finished at 26.8 percent on the PP, tops in the League and a proficiency not seen in the NHL for decades. Ovechkin and Green in particular have thrived with Oates' new plan.
Killing penalties has been a problem, though less so of late. The New Jersey Devils had a fantastic PK during the 2011-12 regular season when Oates was an assistant, but Washington's PK was a disaster at the start of this campaign.
Derick Brassard: It's not a coincidence that the Rangers' offense and power play improved greatly after the forward arrived from Columbus. There were times when Brassard was seeing the ice more than Richards, signed to be the team's No. 1 center two summers ago. Scoring depth means everything in a postseason series, and if Brassard can continue to produce at the near point-per-game pace he has since joining the Rangers, he will be a big reason for the first-round upset.
Martin Erat: Erat had strong games for the Nashville Predators in past postseasons, and he can help the Capitals with secondary scoring and strong work in the corners at both ends of the ice. This Rangers team, unlike the 2012 version on most nights, can be outworked.
Rangers will win if … Lundqvist can steal the show. It's very possible the Rangers are going to need to win two or three games 2-1, and he has shown down the stretch he's capable of stealing a game. If the Rangers' offense goes dormant, it will be on Lundqvist to be magnificent.
Capitals will win if ... They win the battle at even strength -- their power play has been fantastic but isn't likely to get as many opportunities. They have the forward depth and ability to dictate play the way the Rangers did to them a year ago.
Analysis by Corey Masisak and Dave Lozo
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