Series breakdown: Capitals (1) vs. Rangers (8)
Regular season series: Rangers win, 3-1
Snapshot: For all that's been said about the Capitals' new defensive-minded approach this season, it's finally time to see if it will make any difference when it really matters. With their offensive numbers way down (219 goals compared to 313 last season), the Caps aren't the same run-and-gun team that flamed out when the tallies didn't come in the first round against Montreal last April. They've been much better at taking care of their own end, ranking second in the East in goals-allowed, and have demonstrated greater resilience, playing in far more tight games than in past years. Of their 48 wins in 2010-11, 26 were decided by one goal. Last season, 19 of their 54 wins were one-goal games. So perhaps not regularly outgunning their opponents will sharpen their focus.
This year, Washington meets another eight seed, the Rangers, who are defined by coach John Tortorella's tireless style. Though not as blessed with pure talent and skill as the Capitals, the Rangers have proven they can adapt as well as any team in the league. They could struggle, however, without injured winger Ryan Callahan, whose tenacity and heart are even more valuable than his scoring (23 goals the season). But with five 20-goal scorers on their roster, the offense is by no means a one-man show. That said, if there is one man who holds game-breaking -- even series-breaking -- abilities for New York, it is Marian Gaborik, who has struggled this season and hasn't scored a goal since March 20. A sudden return to form would be a huge blessing.
If the Rangers have one clear advantage, it's goalie Henrik Lundqvist, who can steal at least one game in any given playoff series. Washington, meanwhile, will put its postseason hopes on young goalies Michal Neuvirth, who will make his playoff debut in Game 1, and Semyon Varlamov. Each was lit up by New York once this season. It won't be easy to tuck away those memories, but if the Caps give them some goal support and insulate them from second-chance shots down low, they can wash away those blowouts with a second round berth.
Spotlight's on: Alexander Semin. Some describe him as enigmatic -- perhaps due to his penchant for seemingly disappearing on the ice. But when he's on his game, the 6' 2", 206-pound Russian winger can be an absolute magician with the puck. Though maybe haunted by postseasons past -- he hasn't scored a playoff goal since April 2009 -- the Caps' second-leading goal scorer will be expected to bring the points. The slick one-on-one moves that define his world-class talent may not work against the Rangers' tight-checking system, but it's about time that Semin learns to adapt his game into the NHL playoffs. No question about it, he can be a game-breaker; but unfortunately for Washington, that statement can work both ways.
X-Factor for Rangers: Marc Staal. Even in a down season by his standards, Alex Ovechkin was held goalless by only one Eastern team this season: the Rangers. Some credit is due Lundqvist, who seems to frustrate the Russian sniper more than any other netminder (except maybe Jaroslav Halak). But don't overlook the effectiveness of Staal, the Rangers' shut-down defenseman who clings to Ovie like a shadow. The big-bodied blueliner has the build to challenge the Caps' bold, physical winger and the speed to keep up with him. Frustrating Washington's captain has been a rather effective way to stop the Caps, so look to Staal and his partner Dan Girardi to play silencers in what is expected to be an intense series.
X-Factor for Capitals: Jason Arnott. The deadline pickup from New Jersey has been a godsend. Not only does he give the Caps more scoring depth down the middle, the 18-year veteran brings Cup-winning experience (Devils in 2000) and perhaps most importantly, serious leadership qualities to a team that sometimes seems to lack cool, calming heads. With his wealth of hockey knowledge, Arnott has earned the respect of dressing room. He's also helped recharge a power play that had been in the doldrums since last spring, and he finally gives the Capitals a reliable, steady presence at second-line center. His chemistry with Semin could be a deciding factor in this series and perhaps beyond.
The Pick: Capitals in 6.
FARBER: Canucks dressed for success