April 13 vs. New York Rangers at Verizon Center
Game 1, Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Series
Time: 7:30 pm TV: Comcast SportsNet Radio: 820AM, 1500AM and XM
New York Rangers (44-33-5 in regular season)
Washington Capitals (48-23-11 in regular season)
When the Washington Capitals opened up the Stanley Cup playoffs as the top-seeded team in the Eastern Conference against the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens last spring, there was a 33-point gulf between the two teams in terms of the regular season standings.
This time around, the Caps are again the first-seeded team in the East. They’ll face the eighth-seeded New York Rangers in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series, a team that finished a mere 14 points behind Washington in the Eastern Conference standings.
Only once since 1992-93 has there been a shorter distance in points between the first and eighth seeds in the East. That was in 2007-08 when only 10 points separated the top 10 teams in the Eastern Conference.
Standings points isn’t the only place where the gap between the Caps and the Rangers is tight. Washington finished with a 2.29 team goals against average, fourth in the NHL. The Rangers were right behind them in fifth at 2.34.
“We’re very similar,” says Caps coach Bruce Boudreau, “offensively and defensively. That’s what’s going to make it really interesting. The intangibles that we don’t know about are going to make the difference in who plays better.
“Who’s got the better power play? Who’s got the better penalty killing? Who takes more penalties? Which goalie is better by two percent? These are the things that make playoffs. Who wins the battles in the corners? In the end, that’s what’s probably going to make one a winner and one a loser.”
Washington was 1-2-1 and was outscored by a combined 17-6 against the Rangers during the regular season. The Capitals suffered an 18-11-3 loss to the Rangers in New York on Dec. 12, and went 30-12-8 in the season’s final 50 games thereafter.
The Caps suffered a 6-0 spanking at the hands of the Rangers on home ice on Feb. 25, but went 16-3-1 with a 1.90 GAA in their last 20 games of the season after that.
“That’s all thrown out the window,” says Boudreau of the four games between the Caps and the Rangers this season, and the rest of the regular season for that matter. “It’s a brand new season. I think we’re playing pretty well; we’re 16-3-1 in our last 20. But none of that means anything. Wednesday is what means something, and both teams will be ready.”
That said, the Capitals are certainly happy that they’ve been playing their best hockey of the season in the weeks leading up to the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“It’s always nice to start playing your best going into the tournament,” says Boudreau, “but at the same time, playing your best at the tournament is the time that counts. Because nobody remembers anything else. Nobody remembers that you won the Presidents’ Trophy by 11 or 12 points last year. They only remember what happens in the playoffs. To me, that’s the important thing.”
Washington is one of just seven of the 30 NHL teams that have made the playoffs in each of the last four springs. But the Caps have advanced past the first round just once in the previous three Stanley playoff rides. They’ve got designs on a longer run in 2011.
“It is a different situation coming into the playoffs,” says Caps right wing Mike Knuble. “It’s not another regular season game and you’ve got to dig a little bit deeper. With our group, I think we’ve all learned that lesson. We learned it last year, and it’s something you don’t want to repeat again. We’ve got some more veteran guys here who are playing, and they’re all good voices in the room. We had the whole summer to digest the fact that you’ve got to come up with more than you did in the regular season at playoff time.”
Among those newer veteran voices in the Caps’ locker room is that of defenseman Scott Hannan, a veteran of some lengthy playoff runs during his days with the San Jose Sharks. The smallest of details can mean the difference between a team’s season ending and another team advancing, and Hannan has seen that first-hand.
“Trying to work the ebb and flow and not compound mistakes,” he says, noting what’s most important in the playoffs. “Teams are going to come out and you’re going to have momentum in series and you’re going to lose momentum. It’s the play that changes that and gets that going the other way, getting the puck in deep and trying to grind teams down. And knowing that games aren’t always over with five minutes to go, so the things you do at the beginning of the game can be just as important as the things you’re doing in the third [period].
“The first shift could mean the difference in the fifth period. You don’t really know. That’s the key when you’re going into the playoffs, having that mental fortitude to stay the course. It’s a seven-game series and this is our plan. It could go all the way, it could be quick, it could go seven games. But if you stick to that plan, that gives us the best shot of winning.”
Rookie goaltender Michal Neuvirth gets his first taste of the Stanley Cup playoffs as Washington's Game 1 starter. Neuvirth backstropped claimed consecutive Calder Cup championships with the AHL Hershey Bears in each of the last two seasons. The 23-year-old Czech native posted a 27-12-4 mark with a 2.45 GAA and a .914 save pct. in 2010-11. Neuvirth was 9-2-0 with a 2.15 GAA and a .925 save pct. in his last dozen starts of the regular season.
After missing out on a postseason berth because of an agonizing shootout loss in the final game of the 2009-10 regular season, the Rangers are back in business this spring. They won a must-win game over the Devils in their regular season finale on Saturday, then watched, waited and finally celebrated as a 6-2 Tampa Bay win over Carolina on Saturday night put the Blueshirts into the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
New York’s 24 road wins were tied for second most in the Eastern Conference in 2010-11, and the Rangers won four more games on the road than they did at Madison Square Garden. The Blueshirts will attempt to wrest home ice away from Washington by taking one or two of the first two games at Verizon Center.
The Rangers won both of their visits to the District during the regular season, a 2-1 shootout win on Jan. 24 and a 6-0 whitewashing a month and a day later.
Along with Atlanta’s Ondrej Pavelec, Tampa Bay’s Dwayne Roloson and Florida’s Tomas Vokoun, New York netminder Henrik Lundqvist was one of four goaltenders to shutout the Capitals twice during the 2010-11 regular season. Washington absorbed 11 shutout losses, its highest single-season total since establishing a franchise mark with a dozen during its inaugural season in the league, 1974-75.
Lundqvist led the NHL with 11 shutouts, and he ranked among the league’s top 10 in wins, goals against average and save percentage. During his NHL career, Lundqvist is 11-6-2 with a 2.75 GAA and a .906 save pct. in 19 career regular season starts against the Capitals.
When the Caps ousted the Rangers in the first round of the playoffs two springs ago, Lundqvist was 3-4 with a 3.00 GAA and a .908 save pct. Lifetime, Lundqvist has won two of the six Stanley Cup playoff series in which he has played, going 14-16 with a 2.66 GAA and a .907 save pct. in the process.