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Rangers vs. Capitals Series Preview

by Staff Writer / New York Rangers
By Jim Cerny, newyorkrangers.com


Here are some keys to the Rangers-Capitals Eastern Conference Quartefinals series, which begins on Wednesday night at the Verizon Center in Washington.

Series Overview


The Rangers and Capitals played four tightly-contested games against one another this season, with Washington winning three of the four. Three matches were decided by one goal, the other by only two, and two of the four contests required more than 60 minutes of play to determine a victor.

The Rangers’ lone win in the season series came in the shootout on Feb. 11 when the Blueshirts secured a wild 5-4 victory at Madison Square Garden.

Washington won both games played at the Verizon Center -- 3-1 on Nov. 8 and 2-1 on Jan. 3 -- while also grabbing a 5-4 overtime victory at MSG on Dec. 23, one in which the Caps erased a 4-0 deficit.

Coaches

John Tortorella
John Tortorella took over behind the Rangers bench on Feb. 23 with the club having lost 10 of its previous 12 games. Tortorella guided the Rangers to a 12-7-2 mark over the final 21 games of the regular season, finally securing a playoff berth in the next-to-last contest.

This will be Tortorella’s fifth foray into the National Hockey League’s postseason. He led the Tampa Bay Lightning into the 2003, 2004, 2006, and 2007 playoffs, winning five of eight series, and posting a 24-21 overall record in games. Most famously, Tortorella coached the Lightning to the Stanley Cup Championship in 2004. He also guided Rochester to the AHL’s Calder Cup Championship in 1996.

Caps coach Bruce Boudreau replaced former Rangers’ goaltender Glen Hanlon early in the 2007-08 season and proceeded to lead his club out of last place with a 37-17-7 record and into the playoffs.

Bruce Boudreau
Boudreau won the Jack Adams Trophy as the league’s top coach for his efforts last season. In his first full season behind the Caps bench this year, Boudreau’s club finished second in the Eastern Conference with 50 wins and 108 points.

Boudreau, who has won championships at both the AHL and ECHL levels as a head coach, has seven games of experience in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Last spring, his Capitals squad lost its first-round series in seven games to the Philadelphia Flyers, dropping the decisive Game 7 in overtime.

Goaltending

Henrik Lundqvist put forth another outstanding season as the Rangers’ franchise goaltender, winning a career-best 38 games while making 70 starts between the pipes. Lundqvist, who ranked fourth in the league in wins, posted a solid 2.43 goals-against average, .916 save percentage, and three shutouts this season, and earned his first trip to the National Hockey League All-Star Game.

Henrik Lundqvist
In his four-year career, Lundqvist has never failed to lead the Rangers into the playoffs. Overall he has started 23 career post-season matches, winning 11 of them, while posting a 2.57 goals against average and two shutouts. In each of the last two seasons, Lundqvist backstopped the Rangers into the second round of the playoffs.

Caps goalie Jose Theodore is a 32-year-old veteran who appeared in 57 games this season and posted a 32-17-5 record. He had his lowest goals against average (2.87) in three years, though that was a far cry from his best year in 2003-04 when he had a terrific 2.27 goals against. Also, he had a disappointing .900 save percentage this season.

Theodore does have 47 games of NHL playoff experience while playing for the Montreal Canadiens and Colorado Avalanche. Signed as a free agent last summer, Theodore is appearing in his first postseason with the Caps. He has never played past the second round of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Interestingly, Lundqvist and Theodore faced one another in the Swedish League Playoffs in the spring of 2005 during the NHL lockout, with Lundqvist’s Frolunda squad defeating Theodore’s Djurgarden team.

Jose Theodore
Neither of the teams’ backup goaltenders has any NHL playoff experience. 32 year-old Stephen Valiquette of the Rangers, though, does have considerably more pro experience than Washington’s 20 year-old Simeon Varlamov, who is a highly-touted second-round pick from the 2006 NHL Entry Draft.

Offense

Since Tortorella took over as head coach, the Rangers are a much more aggressive offensive team, and they skate at a much higher tempo. They will look to get two players in on the forecheck, and their defensemen are much more involved in the offensive flow, as well.

Puck possession is the key to the Rangers’ success in this new style of play. Tortorella preaches the importance of puck possession constantly to his players. In Tortorella’s view, a good defense starts with controlling the puck. The more you have it, the less the other team has it.

Scott Gomez
Though the offensive production picked up after Tortorella took over as head coach, the Rangers still finished the season with only 210 goals scored, tied for the second lowest total in the Eastern Conference, and tied for fifth fewest in the NHL.

Five different players recorded 20-plus goals for the Rangers -- Nik Antropov (career-high 28, although 21 of those were scored as a member of the Toronto Maple Leafs), Markus Naslund (24), Nikolai Zherdev (23), Chris Drury (22), and Ryan Callahan (career-high 22). The Rangers will need even more consistent production out of this group, as well as from the likes of Brandon Dubinsky (13 goals, including two in the final game of the regular season), Sean Avery (five goals in 18 games after being picked up on waivers), and Scott Gomez (16 goals).

The Rangers will boost their chances to score more if their power play can finally get itself untracked. The Blueshirts’ power play clicked at only 13.9 percent this year, which was ranked next-to-last in the NHL.

Although Washington’s Alex Ovechkin will receive most of the attention from the fans and the press in this series, the Rangers realize that the Russian superstar is not nearly the lone offensive threat in the Caps arsenal.

Alex Ovechkin
Washington scored 272 goals this season, a whopping 62 more than the Rangers, and three of their players notched 30 or more. Ovechkin not only led his team with 56 goals, but he led the entire league with that amount. He also was second in the NHL with 110 points.

A fierce competitor who will play a physical game, as well as routinely ratchet up 10 shots on goal per game, Ovechkin was limited to just three goals and five points in four games against the Rangers this season.

Tortorella and his players are quick to point out, however, that Ovechkin is not Washington’s only threat offensively. Highly-skilled defenseman Mike Green scored 31 goals -- more than any other NHL defenseman -- this year, while center Nicklas Backstrom notched 66 assists to go along with 22 goals. And talented forward Alexander Semin was able to score 34 goals despite being limited to only 62 games played due to injuries.

Add the underrated Brooks Laich (23 goals), winger Tomas Fleischmann (19 goals), and wily veterans Sergei Fedorov and Michael Nylander to the mix, and it’s no surprise as to why the Caps have such a deep and potent offense.

Washington can also do much damage on the power play, where Ovechkin (19 power play goals, second most in the league) and Green (18 power play goals) routinely create havoc for the opposition.

Defense


Marc Staal
The Rangers have repeatedly said that defending Ovechkin, Green, and the rest of the talented Capitals will not be the sole responsibility of Lundqvist, or one defense pairing, or one forward line combination. Instead, it will be six men on the ice seeking to shut down an extremely powerful offense.

In addition, Tortorella believes that controlling the puck as much as possible, as well as getting the puck in deep behind the Caps’ net, will aid his team’s defensive success. Another key will be to not get caught out of position against the outstanding transition game of Washington.

Expect to see the defense pairing of Marc Staal and Dan Girardi out against Ovechkin’s line as much as possible. Those two youngsters were handed a lot of responsibility by Tortorella down the stretch of the regular season, and they both responded in fine fashion.

Wade Redden, who played better hockey after Tortorella’s arrival, has 94 games worth of NHL playoff experience as a member of the Ottawa Senators, and he will be a key player for the Rangers in the postseason. The intelligent Michal Rozsival, who is feeling healthy despite a late-season knee injury, also will be looked upon as an important figure defensively.

Mike Green
One of the Rangers’ true strengths is their outstanding penalty-killing unit. Led by hard-working forwards Blair Betts and Fredrik Sjostrom, the Rangers owned the league’s best kill at 87.8 percent. This unit, backstopped by Lundqvist, will be tested by the Capitals, and needs to be a difference maker for the Rangers.

While Washington is one of the league’s elite offensive teams, it did not have the same level of success defensively this season, allowing the most goals of the eight playoff teams from the East, and tenth most overall in the league.

Counter-attacking against the Caps with a quick transition game, is the best way to generate scoring chances against a team that will press offensively themselves. There is no real stopper among a defense corps that includes former Ranger Tom Poti along with Milan Jurcina and Shaone Morrisonn, though Green is the best all-around rearguard the team has.

The return from injury of veteran Brian Pothier in the final month of the regular season has helped boost the defense corps for the Capitals, who will need their forwards to help back in their own zone more than they might like. Though getting along in years, Fedorov is still solid in his own end as a reliable two-way center, and others like Eric Fehr, Matt Bradley, and Dave Steckel are diligent defensive forwards.

History

This will be the fifth all-time post-season meeting between the Rangers and Capitals, and the first since 1994 when the Blueshirts eliminated Washington in a five-game second-round victory en route to the Stanley Cup Championship. Both teams have won twice, with the Rangers’ other series victory coming in 1986 when they took out the Caps over six games in the second round.

Washington opened up the decade of the ‘90’s by KO’ing the Rangers in back-to-back years. In 1990, John Druce and Dino Cicarelli scored huge overtime goals to eliminate the Rangers from the second round of the playoffs in five games. And in 1991, the Capitals won the final three games to eliminate the Rangers in a six-game first-round series.
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