The Series: #1 Washington Capitals (48-23-11, 107 pts.) vs. #8 New York Rangers (44-33-5, 93 pts.)

Regular Season: The Rangers won the season series 3-1.  One game was settled by a shootout.

How they Match Up:

The Capitals struggled early on the season, but went on a tear at the end of the year, going 16-3-1 in their final 20 games.  The Rangers, on the other hand, went 12-7-1 in their last 20, needing a Carolina loss in their final game of the year to qualify for the postseason.  However, one of the Rangers 12 wins was a 6-0 victory over the Capitals.

History:

The Rangers pushed the Capitals to the brink in 2009 before losing to Washington in seven games.  New York jumped out to 2-0 and 3-1 series leads that year, but the Caps won three straight games to send the Rangers packing.  Sergei Fedorov, who was then playing with Washington, scored the game-winning goal in game seven.

This season, the Rangers have seemingly had the Capitals’ number, defeating them in 7-0 and 6-0 games during the year.

Key Players:

Everyone knows the Washington Capitals have some incredible offensive power.  Alex Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom, Alex Semin, Mike Green and others are more than capable of lightning up the scoreboard. However, this season they haven’t exactly done so very often.  The Capitals have seemingly switched their focus to a more defensive game in an attempt to achieve more playoff success.  Now that the postseason is actually here, we’ll see if this style continues.  The most important “key player” in Washington is actually the Capitals’ team game.

For the Rangers, Henrik Lundqvist will be expected to shine.  His 36 regular season wins were only two behind Roberto Luongo and Carey Price for the league lead and his 11 shutouts lead the NHL.  The Capitals can be ruthless offensively when they want to be, and Lundqvist will need to withstand the assault.

Potential Weaknesses:

In Washington, the goaltending situation remains a bit of a question mark.  While all signs point to Michal Neuvirth being in net, Bruce Boudreau has never been shy of making a goaltender change.  The relative inexperience of Neuwirth could end up costing him the starting job, though Semyon Varlamov hasn’t been as strong as usual this season.

Whether or not Bruce Boudreau’s new system is successful while also determine how far the Capitals go this year.  Their defensive lapses and postseason failures in the past have been well-documented and things will have to be different this year if the Caps hope to succeed.  Focus is important for Washington.

The Rangers’ main issue with will inexperience and inconsistency.  Outside of recently-acquired Bryan McCabe, the Rangers’ defense is quite young.  While they are all very talented, there’s also something to be said for experience.  On offense, Marian Gaborik’s health will once again be a question mark, as will his ability to turn it on when it matters.  Gaborik hasn’t been to the playoffs since 2008 and he hasn’t scored a playoff goal since 2007.  He’ll need to turn it on for the Rangers to succeed.

Key Injuries:

In Washington, defensive injuries have been the story.  Dennis Wideman, Mike Green and Tom Poti have all missed time recently and only Green is expected to return for game one.  For the Rangers, the injury to Ryan Callahan is a significant one.  He’s out with a fractured right leg and isn’t expected to return any time soon.

Difference Makers:

If anyone is going to score big goals at timely moments for Washington, it’s Mike Knuble.  Not only does he bring veteran leadership to the team, but he supplies a needed dose of sandpaper as well.

In New York, Ruslan Fedotenko is a noted playoff performer.  As a member of the Lightning in 2004 he scored both goals in game seven to bring the Cup to Tampa Bay.  He was also a key to the Pittsburgh Penguins 2009 championship, recording 14 points in 24 playoff games.

Prediction:

The Capitals have, somewhat surprisingly, had trouble scoring goals this season.  If they can’t get enough pucks past Lundqvist, it could once again be a disappointing season in Washington.  However, Washington is the more talented franchise and, as long as they stick to their game plan, they should come out victorious here.  Capitals in six.