Second round series breakdown: Rangers (1) vs. Capitals (7)
These aren't the same old Capitals; they now play much like the Rangers
Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist hasn't had much playoff success vs. the Caps
If Caps goalie Braden Holtby stays hot, scoring first in each game will be key
Key injuries: New York -- C Brian Boyle (concussion, indefinite); Washington -- G Tomas Vokoun (groin, day-to-day).
Snapshot: Some teams just get out of the first round in expected, ho-hum fashion and hope to get more energy from their next series. These two clubs are most definitely not like that. The top-seeded Rangers needed seven games to squeeze past No. 8 Ottawa, and the Capitals went the distance, and then some, against defending Cup champion Boston. Both series were terrific, with Washington's going to a couple levels better than that.
We can automatically look to the goaltending match-up here as potentially the most fascinating aspect of the series, maybe of any we'll see in the playoffs from here on. Can rookie Braden Holtby come through again for Washington? Or will Henrik "Just give me the Vezina now" Lundqvist prove that the kid in the Caps' net was just a one-round wonder?
If this series had started a couple months ago, it would be easy to size it up: the disciplined Rangers against the run-and-gun, defense-is-only-an-option Capitals. No more. Dale Hunter has somehow gotten his troops to buy in to the same kind of system that John Tortorella demands: defense first and nothing fancy or chancy at the offensive end.
Personally, I'm not much of a "here's what happened in the past between these teams" analyst because I don't think the past has much to do with anything that will happen in playoff hockey. If that were usually the case, the Caps would be home by now, and so would teams like Phoenix and Los Angeles in the West. But here is one stat to think about: Washington is 8-4 against Lundqvist in the playoffs, with series wins in 2009 and 2011. Lundqvist's saves percentage against them is .912, well below his usual average. So does that mean the Caps come in confident against King Henrik? Maybe, but certainly not overconfident. This is a different Rangers team now, better in front of him in all parts of the game.
The Bruins were frustrated by Washington's shot-blocking, collapsing defense in round one, and never really got their fast transition game going. It will be harder for the Caps to do that with the Rangers, because New York doesn't like to play that way. They'd rather collapse their D and block a lot of shots and get opportunities off that. Which team will crack first and maybe deviate from its preferred style? Neither will want to, so getting the first goal in each game will be major in this series.
Spotlight's on: Alex Ovechkin. Sorry to pick the guy who already gets so much pub, but if the Caps are going to the Eastern final, it figures they'll need more from Ovie than they got in Round 1. Not that two goals and five points in seven games against Boston was bad, but maybe we can all agree that the Caps will need the point-per-game Ovie in this one. Then again, with teammates such as Alex Semin and Nicklas Backstrom showing their old form again -- and with a hot goalie in Holtby -- maybe not. But if there is one player who has the talent to foul up Tortorella's checking schemes by himself for a game or two, it's Ovechkin.
X-Factor for the Capitals: Mike Green. After an injury-plagued regular season, he's looking good again. He played a strong series against Boston, with a plus-5 showing and two points. His slapshot from the point is better, and no doubt the Caps will need to get a power play goal or two or three to beat the Rangers, who are so tough in 5-on-5 hockey.
X-Factor for Rangers: Marc Staal. Speaking of previously banged up D-men who are playing better... Staal scored his first goal since February in Thursday's Game 7 win over Ottawa. Like Green, he is big and mobile and a key to how the Rangers get the puck out of their zone. He probably doesn't have Green's skill set, but he can do good things at the offensive end if given the chance.
The Pick: Capitals in six.