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Rangers set to renew playoff rivalry with Capitals

NHL.com @NHL

Familiar opponents in the Stanley Cup Playoffs will meet again, this time in the Eastern Conference Second Round. The New York Rangers and Washington Capitals will play in a playoff series for the fifth time since 2009.

No teams have played against one another more in the playoffs the past seven seasons.

The Rangers got to the second round by defeating the Pittsburgh Penguins in five games. The Capitals needed a goal from Evgeny Kuznetsov late in the third period of Game 7 on Monday to eliminate the New York Islanders.

The Rangers haven't played since Friday. They took the weekend off and kept waiting and watching to find out who they'd play next. Now that they know it's the Capitals, they'll try to defeat them in a playoff series for the third time in four years. Game 1 is at Madison Square Garden on Thursday (7:30 p.m. ET; NBCSN, CBC, TVA Sports).

The Rangers eliminated the Capitals in the second round in 2012 and the first round in 2013. Each series went seven games.

Washington defeated the Rangers in a seven-game series in 2009 and a five-game series in 2011.

Goalie Henrik Lundqvist and defensemen Marc Staal and Dan Girardi are the only Rangers who have appeared in all four series against Washington. Ten players from the 2013 team are with New York.

Six players from the 2009 Capitals are with the team, including Alex Ovechkin, Mike Green, Nicklas Backstrom, Brooks Laich and Eric Fehr. Jay Beagle played four playoff games in 2009, but none against New York.

The Rangers, who won the Presidents' Trophy with 113 points, defeated Washington three times in four games in the regular season, including twice at Verizon Center. Washington won 5-2 at Madison Square Garden on March 29.

The Capitals finished the season second in the Metropolitan Division with 101 points.

Rangers center Derrick Brassard, who had three goals in the first round against the Penguins, had five points against Washington in the regular season. New York rookie center Kevin Hayes also had five points, and left wing Rick Nash scored three of his New York-high 42 goals against Washington even though he missed one of the games.

Lundqvist was a difference-maker in two appearances against the Capitals, with a 2.00 goals-against average and .929 save percentage.

The Rangers dominated the Capitals at the start of games, outscoring them 7-2 in the first period. They did the same against the Penguins in the first round, outscoring them 5-1 in the first.

The Capitals were outscored 5-4 by the Islanders in the first.

The Capitals' vaunted power play scored four times on 13 chances against the Rangers in the regular season. Ovechkin scored all four goals and led Washington with five against New York. The Capitals scored 10 goals in the four-game season series.

Washington goalie Braden Holtby appeared in all four games and allowed 12 goals on 116 shots for a 3.06 GAA and .897 save percentage. The only team that got to Holtby more was the Columbus Blue Jackets, who scored 16 goals in five games against him.

Forwards

The Rangers stayed true to their late regular-season form in their series against the Penguins by rolling the same four lines in each game and getting contributions from all of them. They won the Presidents' Trophy in the regular season by doing that.

It likely won't be the same to start the second round. Mats Zuccarello is out indefinitely with an upper-body injury sustained in Game 5 against the Penguins. He had two points against Pittsburgh and 49 points in 78 regular-season games.

Martin St. Louis is expected to take Zuccarello's place on the top line with Brassard and Nash if Zuccarello is unable to play. James Sheppard, who was scratched for all five games in the first round, is expected to get into the lineup in place of Zuccarello.

Sheppard will likely play on the fourth line with Tanner Glass and Dominic Moore, pushing Jesper Fast up to the third line with Hayes and Carl Hagelin. The line of Derek Stepan, J.T. Miller and Chris Kreider is expected to remain intact.

Losing Zuccarello hurts New York, but they proved against Pittsburgh that they have enough to make up for him.

Brassard and Nash each had four points, including three goals for Brassard. Stepan, Kreider and Miller combined for five points, three from Stepan. Kreider's goal in Game 3 was the game-winner.

New York's overtime winners came from Hayes in Game 4 and Hagelin in Game 5. Hagelin had two goals and the primary assist on Hayes' OT winner. St. Louis' only point in the series was the secondary assist on Hayes' goal. Moore had the primary assist on Hagelin's OT winner.

It all starts with "The Great 8," Ovechkin. He led the League during the regular season with 53 goals and 25 power-play goals. He and his linemates, Backstrom and Joel Ward, had six goals and nine assists in the best-of-7 series against the Islanders. When that line is clicking, the Capitals are hard to beat.

The Capitals' second line of Kuznetsov, Jason Chimera and Marcus Johansson was extremely productive, with six goals and five assists. The top two lines for the Capitals were a big reason they advanced to the second round.

Washington's seven other forwards --  Beagle, Laich, Tom Wilson, Curtis Glencross, Troy Brouwer and rookies Andre Burakovsky and Michael Latta -- have made up the third and fourth lines, but coach Barry Trotz has altered who has played. Burakovsky, Latta and Glencross were each a healthy scratch at one point in the first round.

The Capitals were very physical against the Islanders, something that can again be expected against the Rangers. Ovechkin led forwards with 31 hits in the series, with Wilson (22), Chimera (21) and Johansson (19) not far behind.

Defensemen

Rangers defensemen had 12 points against the Penguins and helped keep center Evgeni Malkin off the score sheet. They also stopped Sidney Crosby from having a major impact beyond his two goals in Game 2.

The Rangers did it without Kevin Klein, who sat out the series because he was recovering from a broken left arm. Klein is back and expected to play in Game 1, which likely means Matt Hunwick will be scratched.

Ryan McDonagh averaged a Rangers-high 25:45 per game and had four points against Pittsburgh. He scored the winning goal in Game 1 and had an assist on Hagelin's OT winner in Game 5. He has 18 points in his past 15 playoff games.

Girardi had three assists and a Rangers-high 23 blocked shots. He took a puck to the face in Game 1 and blocked a shot with the meat of his calf in Game 5 but averaged 22:24 per game. Girardi played a game-high 26:06 in Game 3, including 9:26 in the third period.

Staal's possession numbers were lacking against Pittsburgh (43.3 shot attempts percentage), but he had the toughest assignments and was a key player in shutting out Malkin.

Of Staal's 85 even-strength starts, 72 were in either the neutral zone or the defensive zone, according to War-on-Ice.com. His 13 even-strength offensive-zone starts were the fewest among any defenseman in the first round who played at least five games and averaged 14 minutes at even-strength per game.

Dan Boyle and Keith Yandle each had two assists against Pittsburgh. Yandle had the Rangers' best SAT percentage (55.83).

The Capitals were one of the healthiest teams when it comes to defensemen. Five of their top six -- Green, Brooks Orpik, Matt Niskanen, John Carlson and Karl Alzner -- played at least 72 games during the regular season, with Niskanen, Carlson and Alzner each playing all 82 games. The sixth member of the defense, Tim Gleason, was acquired in a trade earlier this season but has fit in seamlessly.

Orpik and Carlson are the shutdown pair, often playing against top lines. Orpik led the Capitals with 41 hits and had 18 blocks against the Islanders. Carlson had a Capitals-high 24 blocks and contributed offensively with four points.

Niskanen and Alzner form the second pairing. Alzner had five goals in the regular season and already has two in the playoffs.

Green didn't have a great season by his standards with 10 goals and 45 points, but the nine-year veteran has been a No. 1 defenseman before. He's adjusted well to his role on the third pairing.

The defense was a big reason the Capitals allowed 2.4 goals per game (seventh in the League) during the regular season, and it has carried over into the playoffs, where they've allowed 14 regulation goals in seven games (2.0 per game). The Rangers were one of the highest scoring teams in the NHL during the regular season and had a plus-60 goal differential, tops in the League, so the Capitals face a tough challenge.

Goalies

Lundqvist's margin for error was thin because of how good Penguins goalie Marc-Andre Fleury was, but he proved in the first round that six starts in the final seven regular-season games was enough for him to shake off any rust he might have taken on as a result of sitting out for 23 games because of his vascular injury.

He tracked the puck well and stayed deep in his crease, two signs that historically show Lundqvist is on his game. Lundqvist also often came out of his net to play the puck against Pittsburgh, which helped stymie the Penguins forecheck.

Lundqvist allowed eight goals on 132 shots for a .939 save percentage and 1.53 goals-against average in five games against Pittsburgh. He gave up four goals on 110 shots (.964 save percentage) in New York's four wins, all by a 2-1 score.

His work was limited in the first four games, when he faced an average of 23.5 shots on goal per game in helping the Rangers jump out to a 3-1 series lead. Lundqvist passed a significant test in Game 5, when he made 37 saves on 38 shots for the series-clinching win.

Of the eight goals he allowed, one came in the first period. The Rangers scored the first goal in four of the five games and had a lead of 2-0 in Games 1 and 3. He stopped 26 of 27 shots in the first period in the series and 52 of 54 shots after the second period.

Since the 2011 playoffs, Lundqvist is 32-29 with a .931 save percentage, 1.99 goals-against average and six shutouts in 62 appearances.

Holtby made a League-high 73 appearances during the regular season and ranked in the top five in nearly all goaltending categories. His heavy workload raised concerns if he would be able to perform in the playoffs. These concerns were only elevated when Holtby missed Game 2 against the Islanders with an illness. But Holtby responded by allowing a total of seven goals in the final five games of the series.

His .943 save percentage ranks second among playoff goalies, and his 1.63 goals-against average is third. Holtby made 166 saves on 176 Islanders shots, and although he faced 11 shots in Game 7, he faced more than 35 three times in the series.

Holtby has a 6-8 playoff record against the Rangers, having allowed 31 goals (.924 save percentage). He allowed four-plus goals in three of the final five games of a 2013 Eastern Conference Quarterfinals loss in seven games to them.

Coaches

New York has won four of five series and is 17-13 in the playoffs under coach Alain Vigneault, who is in his second season with the Rangers.

Vigneault's steady hand in the first round was a big reason the Rangers were able to knock out the Penguins in five games. He made sure to get everybody involved and trusted the fourth line to check Crosby and Malkin.

The Rangers power play certainly wasn't great against the Penguins, but an adjustment Vigneault and assistant coach Scott Arniel made in the third period of Game 2 was a sign of a coach willing to change.

Vigneault and Arniel devised a power play that featured four forwards and one defenseman who was either at the point or in the middle. The new-look power play opened more shooting windows for the Rangers and they score a goal in Game 2 and another in Game 5.

Vigneault improved his Stanley Cup Playoff record to 54-54 with the series win against the Penguins. He has been to the Stanley Cup Final twice as a coach, once with the Vancouver Canucks and last season with the Rangers. He has won the Presidents' Trophy three times, including this season.

Barry Trotz is in his first year as Capitals coach and hasn't been afraid to tinker with the lineup or sit players if he feels it is necessary. Glencross, a veteran, struggled in the playoffs and was a healthy scratch for Games 4, 5 and 6.

Trotz has used rookies Latta and Burakovsky in important situations, showing he trusts his younger players as much as his veterans.

Trotz already passed the first test: winning Game 7. Washington was 3-9 in Game 7s, including 2-7 at home, before Monday.

He spent 15 seasons coaching the Nashville Predators and was one of the most underrated coaches in the League. He led the Predators to the playoffs seven times, advancing to the second round twice.

Trotz hopes he will lead the Capitals to his first conference final and the Capitals' first trip past the second round since they made the Stanley Cup Final in 1998.

Special teams

There were three positives to the Rangers special teams play in the first round that they have to hope carry into the second round:

New York scored three power-play goals, including the game-winner in Game 1 and the goal that put it up 1-0 in Game 5. The Rangers were 3-for-20 on the power play (15 percent) and at times struggled to get shots (33 total), but they were better when they went with a unit that featured four forwards and one defenseman.

The Rangers were shorthanded 13 times, fewer than three times per game. They allowed two power-play goals in Game 2, each  to Pittsburgh's second power-play unit. The Rangers held Pittsburgh's top unit, which featured Crosby and Malkin, to 0-for-13.

New York committed 15 minor penalties in the five games. The less time the Rangers spend in the box in the second round the better.

The Capitals had the League's top power play during the regular season, but it was kept in check by the Islanders. Washington scored on two of 13 chances (15.4 percent), tied for 11th among playoff teams.

Ovechkin led the League with 25 power-play goals but didn't score one in the series. Backstrom and Carlson each had a power-play goal. The Capitals likely will need to generate more offense on the power play in order to win this series.

Washington's penalty kill was ranked 14th during the regular season, but it killed all 14 shorthanded chances in the first round. That might not happen against the Rangers, but credit the PK for its stellar work.

The Capitals were mostly disciplined in the series, averaging two minor penalties per game, a trend they hope continues in the second round.

Series changer

Carl Hagelin
Left Wing - NYR
GOALS: 2 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 3
SOG: 11 | +/-: 1
Carl Hagelin -- The Rangers' plan is to win with speed, and there are few, if any, players faster in the NHL than Hagelin, whose two-way game seems tailor-made for the playoffs.

In the regular season, Hagelin is known more for his defense, especially on the penalty kill, but he has been a big-time playoff performer on offense. He has 15 points in his past 30 playoff games (nine goals).

Hagelin scored the overtime winner in Game 5. He also had the game-winner in Game 6 against the Penguins in the second round last season. He doesn't cheat for offense, but when he finds room in open ice he is as dangerous as any of the Rangers' top-six forwards.

The Rangers like to break out of the defensive zone quickly by going D-to-D up to the left wing streaking through the middle. Hagelin's speed has the ability to turn that play into an odd-man rush when the pass from the defenseman connects with him.

Evgeny Kuznetsov
Center - WSH
GOALS: 3 | ASST: 1 | PTS: 4
SOG: 22 | +/-: 0
Evgeny Kuznetsov -- He didn't score in the first four games of the series, but Kuznetsov showed how valuable he could be in Game 5 when he had two goals, an assist and a game-high seven shots in a 5-1 win. He also scored the winning goal in Game 7 on Monday.

Kuznetsov's ice time has increased in each of the past four games, showing Trotz has confidence in him. He has three goals and four points in seven games after scoring 11 goals in 80 games during the regular season, and isn't saddled with the high expectations of Ovechkin and Backstrom.

Kuznetsov has found chemistry playing on the second line with Chimera and the playmaking Johansson, and hasn't looked like a playoff rookie.

With all the stars on the Capitals, Kuznetsov has taken a backseat but is tied with Backstrom for the most playoff goals on the team.

Will win if

RANGERS WILL WIN IF … They stay aggressive and avoid playing on their heels for too long. They will have to scramble at times, as they did against the Penguins, but those situations never lasted longer than a period and Lundqvist was there to prevent any damage when the Penguins were the aggressors.

Lundqvist has to be as good as he was in the first round.

Speed is the Rangers' game and the faster they play, particularly from the back end on breakouts, the better they are. If they play fast they will avoid an overly physical series and that will be to their benefit.

New York also needs to stay disciplined, as it was against Pittsburgh, and establish a shoot-first mentality on the power play. The Rangers didn't have that mentality on a consistent basis against the Penguins and it's one of the reasons they didn't win Game 2, when they had seven power-play chances.

CAPITALS WILL WIN IF … Holtby is at his best and can outduel Lundqvist. Easier said than done, but Holtby had an excellent regular season and has backed it up in the playoffs. If the Capitals can give him a lead, he'll need to make it stand up.

Ovechkin and Backstrom in the playoffs must play like Ovechkin and Backstrom in the regular season. The two ranked in the top 10 in scoring in the regular season; Backstrom has six points in the playoffs and Ovechkin has five, but they'll need to step it up against the Rangers.

Special teams will be key. The Capitals will have to get the power play going and limit the Rangers' chances when shorthanded.

Compiled by David Satriano and Dan Rosen

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