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Rangers and Capitals renew playoff rivlary

by Dave Lozo
RANGERS (44-33-5) at CAPITALS (48-23-11)


Last 10 -- New York 6-3-1; Washington 7-2-1

Season series -- The Rangers won three of the four meetings, including wins of 7-0 and 6-0. Both teams say the regular-season dominance of the Rangers means nothing now. It should be noted the Caps were playing some of their worst hockey of the season during the first loss, and defenseman Mike Green was knocked out of the 6-0 contest in February with a head injury after a hit by the Rangers' Derek Stepan.

Big story -- After heartache in their final game a season ago, the Rangers found ecstasy in the same situation this season. Their win against the Devils on Saturday, coupled with the Hurricanes' loss to the Lightning later that night, gave the Rangers the final playoff berth in the East. Their reward? A first-round date with the top-seeded Capitals, who closed on a 16-3-1 roll to win their second straight conference championship. They'll be looking for redemption after squandering a 3-1 series lead before losing to the eighth-seeded Canadiens in the first round a year ago. The Caps are a different team now, however, playing a more responsible defensive game and a tougher game offensively. When these teams met in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals two years ago, the Caps won in seven games, overcoming losses in the first two games at home.

Team scope

Rangers -- They've reached the postseason by playing a style that's more crash than flash. Coach John Tortorella has said countless times this season that his team isn't overflowing with talent, which is why they have to give maximum effort on a nightly basis to compete.

It worked, as it got them to the playoffs, but it may have also cost them their most important player not named Henrik Lundqvist for the playoffs. Forward Ryan Callahan suffered a fractured leg while blocking a shot in the Rangers' 80th game of the season, a come-from-behind win against the Bruins.

Marian Gaborik, their leading scorer from a season ago, had just 22 goals in 62 games and none in the Rangers' last nine. Yet the Rangers, ranked ninth in the NHL in goals, didn't suffer much offensively thanks to big seasons from Brandon Dubinsky, Callahan, Brian Boyle and rookie Derek Stepan.

But it will all likely come down to Lundqvist, a potential Vezina Trophy finalist who started the Rangers' final 26 games this season. If he can outplay whoever is manning the crease for the Caps, the Rangers have a fighting chance to pull the upset.

Capitals -- It took a while for the Caps to find their groove this season, playing a new style that focused more on preventing goals than scoring them. Their low point was a nine-game slide that included a 7-0 pummeling at the hands of the Rangers at Madison Square Garden in December.

It all worked in the end, however, with a third straight Southeast Division crown and the No. 1 seed in the East for a second straight season. Perhaps the statistic of which coach Bruce Boudreau and the Caps are most proud is their second-ranked penalty-killing unit (85.6 percent).

It's been a called a "down year" for superstar Alex Ovechkin, and maybe it was by his standards, but he still scored 32 goals in 79 games and finished seventh in the League in scoring with 85 points. Running mate Nicklas Backstrom also finished well below his career average in almost every statistical category, but was it more about him not playing well or adjusting to a new system?

The Caps don't have a Vezina finalist in net, but they have three pretty good young goaltenders. Michal Neuvirth, 23, will get the call in Game 1 after posting a 27-12-4 record with a 2.45 goals-against average and .914 save percentage. Semyon Varlamov will back up, but it's not out of the question that he makes an appearance in the series. Braden Holtby, currently in Hershey of the AHL, also won some big games for the Caps down the stretch.

Who's hot -- Rangers forward Vinny Prospal finished the regular season with 4 goals and 2 assists in 5 games. … Alex Ovechkin had 3 goals and 5 assists in his final six games after getting an 11-day break.

Injury report -- The Rangers officially list Callahan as out indefinitely with his fractured leg. Captain Chris Drury missed more than two months with a knee injury before returning for the season finale against the Devils. … The Caps could get defenseman Mike Green back for Game 1. He's been dealing with concussion symptoms following a hit by Stepan in February. Green says he's ready to go, but Boudreau says he'll be a game-time decision. Fellow defensemen Tom Poti (groin) and Dennis Wideman (leg) are day-to-day and week-to-week, respectively.

Stat pack -- Special teams are magnified in the playoffs, and that may be a bad thing for the Rangers. New York will be facing the League's second-best PK, and its power play limps into the postseason after going 1-for-27 in their final nine games.

Puck drop -- "There's a lot of pressure on captain because he's the one who has to answer the questions when things go good or things go bad. He's got that pressure, but he's also one of the best players in the world so he's got that pressure too. It is kind of a double pressure on him this year when you throw in what happened last year." -- Caps defenseman Tom Poti, talking about teammate Alex Ovechkin

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