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Rangers, Caps renew playoff rivalry with new looks

By Shawn Roarke and Dave Lozo - NHL.com

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Rangers, Caps renew playoff rivalry with new looks
The Rangers and Capitals are meeting for the third time in four years -- but this time, the roles are reversed.

New York Rangers

Seed: 151-24-7 109Pts.

Washington Capitals

Seed: 742-32-8 92Pts.
These teams, just a short train ride apart on the Eastern seaboard, have recent Stanley Cup Playoff history upon which to draw.

The Rangers and Capitals are meeting for the third time in four years -- but this time, the roles are reversed.

They met in the first round three years ago, when the Rangers were the No. 7 seed and the Caps were seeded second. Last year, the Caps were the top seed in the East and the Rangers were eighth.

This time, the Rangers finished No. 1 in the East; the seventh-seeded Capitals occupy the underdog position.

In 2009, the underdog Rangers pushed things to a Game 7 at the Verizon Center before Sergei Fedorov scored the winning goal in a 2-1 victory. Last year, the Caps made it look easy by winning in five games.

What will this matchup hold? It's hard to say, but this much is certain: Both teams are far different than they were in the previous two meetings.

This year's Rangers are fueled by young, home-grown players who have learned how to win -- and star goaltender Henrik Lundqvist is at his peak.

The Capitals play a completely different style. Gone is the star-fueled razzle-dazzle spearheaded by a dominating Alex Ovechkin. In its place is a more responsible game built upon the basic tenets of defense-first hockey.
Forwards
The once top-heavy Rangers have found scoring depth this season, and it came in handy during the first round against the Ottawa Senators.

The No. 1 line of Marian Gaborik, Brad Richards and Carl Hagelin had its troubles during the first round -- some it being attributed to Hagelin's three-game suspension during the series -- but that allowed others to step up and fill the void.

Third-line center Brian Boyle, who missed the final two games of the series due to a concussion, scored three goals against the Senators. Chris Kreider, signed out of college just before the start of the series, played significant minutes during the series' final five games and found a home on the second line with Derek Stepan and Ryan Callahan.

With Boyle out, the go-to checking line for coach John Tortorella became Brandon Prust, Brandon Dubinsky and Ruslan Fedotenko.

The fourth line is comprised of Artem Anisimov, John Mitchell and Mike Rupp.
The Capitals upset the defending Stanley Cup-champion Boston Bruins by deploying their depth across a seven-game series -- and, in the end, it was depth forwards Mike Knuble and Joel Ward who made all the difference in OT of Game 7.

But the Capitals received contributions throughout its forward lines as 11 forwards scored in the series.

The top guns -- Ovechkin, Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom -- led the way, combining for six goals and six assists. Semin, who had three goals, may have been the best forward in the first round.

Brooks Laich, who played more minutes, on average, per game than Ovechkin in the first round, epitomized the two-way, defensively sound game that new coach Dale Hunter has asked his team to play. Eight of the 12 forwards were even or better in plus/minus rating.


Defensemen
The No. 1 pairing is Ryan McDonagh and Dan Girardi, who have been among the League's minutes leaders all season and that hasn’t changed in the postseason. Neither is known much of his offense, but Girardi scored the winner in Game 7 against the Senators in the first round.

Marc Staal has been slowly improving since missing training camp and the first three months of the season due to a concussion. His minutes have risen and so has his play. His goal in Game 7 against Ottawa opened the scoring.

Anton Stralman is known more for his ability to work the point on the power play, but he's developed a more physical side to his game under John Tortorella. Michael Del Zotto is also known more for his offensive game and ability to handle the puck on the man-advantage.
The Boston Bruins were one of the most offensively proficient teams in the regular season, but managed just 15 goals across 24 periods of hockey in their opening-round series against Washington.

The Capitals' defense excelled against the Bruins -- especially the top-four defenders: Mike green, Karl Alzner, Roman Hamrlik and John Carlson. All four averaged more than 22 minutes per game in the first round and were plus-9 as a group. Alzner, who was plus-1, led the way, playing 25:44 per game.

The Caps defenders were also key in Washington's attack. Carlson started the Game 7 scoring with a tippable point shot and the defense finished with a goal and nine assists while generating 58 shots against Tim Thomas.

Goalies
Henrik Lundqvist is this year's likely Vezina Trophy winner, and he continued to dominate in seven games against the Senators. He allowed just 12 goals in the series.

Backup Martin Biron was solid during the regular season but won't likely see any time in this series barring a catastrophe involving Lundqvist.

Braden Holtby was brilliant against Boston, becoming just the third rookie goalie in history to knock off the defending champion in the first round.

Holtby, 22, was pressed into action because of the injuries to Washington's top two goalies and stopped 233 of 248 shots against one of the most dangerous and battle-tested offenses in the League. He will have to approach the 2.00 goals-against average and .940 save percentage in this round for the Caps to have a chance.

Coaches

John Tortorella has crafted this team in his image, and its toughness and resiliency were on display in its comeback from down 3-2 in their series with the Senators. The Rangers play a physical game, and Tortorella has said countless times this season that his team is the sum of its parts. Its hallmark is playing a mistake-free game and relying on outworking the opposition. 

Hunter, an in-season replacement, has pushed all the right buttons in the postseason after struggling to guide the Capitals into the Stanley Cup Playoffs. His ability to get an offense-first team to buy into a defense-first style has made all the difference. Plus, his willingness to sit Ovechkin for some key shifts has set the tone of defensive commitment for the entire roster.
Special Teams

The power play wasn't great in the regular season, but it has found its stride of late. In their last 13 games dating to the regular season, the Rangers are 13-for-59 (22 percent) with the extra man. The PK was ranked No. 5 in the League during the regular season (86.2 percent) and killed off 84.6 percent of chances against the Senators.

If you are looking for reason why Washington prevailed in the first round, look no further than their penalty kill. The Caps were shorthanded 23 times against Boston and allowed just two man-advantage goals -- just one in four road games. The power play, however, was strictly middle of the pack, but has the potential to be a series-changer if the team's big guns get on track.

Series Changer

Brian Boyle, Rangers -- Can the big power forward make it back from his concussion to have an impact in this series? He had three goals in the first round and proved to be a matchup nightmare for the Senators.

Alex Ovechkin, Capitals -- He didn't play big minutes and his performance when he was on the ice was often muted, but Ovi plays his best on the big stages and this is a pretty big stage for the Russian star.

What If ...

Rangers will win if … They contain the Capitals' big guns, Alex Ovechkin, Alexander Semin and Nicklas Backstrom. The Caps play an ultra-tight defensive system and prey on mistakes, and those three players are the ones that usually make opponents pay.
 

Capitals will win if... Holtby can continue to author one of the most intriguing playoff stories in recent memory and the Capitals don't get away from their new-found identity as a team that will contest the entire 200 feet of any rink.



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He seemed to thrive on his own and didn't really need any push from me. I certainly don't want to get in the way of the coaches. You see how that goes sometimes. I never really worried about it and just enjoyed the ride.

— David Ekblad on his son's [Aaron Ekblad] journey to the NHL, signing with the Florida Panthers