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April 28 vs. New York Rangers at Verizon Center
Time: 7:30 pm
TV: CSN, NBCSN, TSN
Radio: 1500 AM, 106.7 The Fan FM and Caps Radio Network
New York Rangers (26-18-4), 56 points
Washington Capitals (27-18-3), 57 points
Game 1, Eastern Conference quarterfinal series
After a four-day break after Saturday’s regular season finale, Washington opens up its pursuit of the 2013 Stanley Cup title on Tuesday night at Verizon Center when it hosts the New York Rangers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference quarterfinal. This marks the fourth time in the last five springs that the Capitals and Rangers have hooked up in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
“Because we just played everybody in the East the whole year, we kind of know every team,” noted Caps coach Adam Oates after Saturday’s 3-2 win over the Bruins. “And the guys – whether it was the Rangers or anybody last year in the playoffs – they know what playoff hockey is. We know what the Rangers bring and we’ll be prepared for them.”
Both teams are coming in hot, and both teams have had a few extra days to prepare for one another.
After a dismal 2-8-1 start to the truncated 2012-13 campaign, the Capitals went 25-10-2 the rest of the way. Washington finished the season on a 17-4-2 roll in its last 23 games, and it posted an 11-1-1 mark in its 13 April games.
“We’ve done some good things, no question,” said Oates after Saturday’s win. “We’ve come a long way, but we’ve got a long way to go. It’s a long way. We can’t be satisfied that we made the playoffs and we got to this position. That’s great … next. Let’s move on, let’s turn the page and prepare for the New York Rangers. That’s all we can do.”
Consider the page turned. A new chapter starts on Thursday with Game 1 against the Rangers, but Washington would certainly love to continue some of the storylines it has authored collectively and individually over the final three-quarters of the regular season.
With an average of 3.04 goals per game on the season, the Caps ranked fourth in the NHL. Over the final 37 games of the season, Washington averaged 3.27 goals per game. That would rank second only to Pittsburgh’s 3.38 if it had been compiled over the entirety of the season.
Caps captain Alex Ovechkin finished the season on a tear that should result in him being a finalist for the Hart Trophy. He led the NHL with 32 goals and 16 power play goals during the season, totaling 27 goals and 46 points in his last 32 games to spearhead Washington’s playoff push.
Centering for Ovechkin, Nicklas Backstrom put up 40 assists and 48 points in 48 regular season games. He averaged .83 assists per game in 2012-13, matching a single-season career best established in 2009-10.
Defenseman Mike Green missed 13 games but still led all NHL defensemen with a dozen goals in 35 contests. Green’s rebound campaign followed two injury-plagued seasons in which he totaled 11 goals in 81 games.
Center Mike Ribeiro put up 49 points to give Washington two point-per-game centers for the first time in 27 years.
Troy Brouwer, who scored 18 goals in 82 games with the Caps in 2011-12, upped his output to 19 goals – seven of them on the power play – in 47 games this season.
Washington surrendered an average of 2.71 goals per game during the regular season. Among the 16 Stanley Cup playoff entrants, only the New York Islanders’ figure of 2.83 was worse. But over the final 37 games of the season, the Caps were stingier defensively. They surrendered an average of 2.41 goals per tilt during that span, a figure that would rank 12th overall in the NHL if it had been maintained over the full season.
The Caps’ power play clicked at a rate of 26.8% on the season, tops in the NHL and best in the league since Calgary’s 27.7% in 1989-90. Washington finished 27th in the NHL in penalty killing prowess, but after allowing 15 power play goals in its first 11 games, the Caps’ penalty-killing outfit settled down and allowed 21 extra-man tallies over the final 37 games of the season.
Over the last seven games of the regular season, the Caps’ penalty-killing corps was successful on 21 of its 23 missions (91.3%).
“Our PK has gotten a lot stronger,” says Brouwer. “We’ve been able to kill of a lot of very timely kills going down the stretch to win games late in the game a few times. Every once in a while we’ll get ourselves in trouble and take five or six penalties in a game, and that’s when our penalty kill struggles just from the abundance of shots that we give up. When you give up that many power plays, it’s going to catch up with you.”
Like many of his teammates, Caps goalie Braden Holtby has rebounded after a rough start. He started 31 of Washington’s final 37 games of the regular season, posting a 22-8-1 record, four shutouts, a 2.27 GAA and a .929 save pct. during that span.
Holtby started and finished all 14 of Washington’s Stanley Cup playoff games as an NHL rookie last spring. He was 7-7 in those contests with a 1.95 GAA and a .935 save pct.
“It’s a different situation, obviously,” says Holtby of this spring’s playoffs, “a different type of pressure and different obstacles to overcome. It’s just taking the same mindset, dumbing everything down to try and simplify as much as you can. All I need to do is focus on my game, what I have to do to be successful. Everything else that comes with the playoffs really doesn’t matter. It doesn’t make a difference at all. It’s what I know I am capable of doing on the ice and making sure I do it.”
Perhaps the greatest challenge facing the Capitals in the series ahead is scoring 5-on-5 goals against the Rangers. Washington scored three such goals in 165 minutes of regular season hockey against New York during the regular season, and the Rangers allowed a league-low total of 70 goals in 48 games while they and their opponents skated five to a side.
“Not try and do too much at the blueline,” says Brouwer when asked how the Caps can create offense in 5-on-5 situations. “Once we get the puck down low they collapse a lot, so we’ll have to work hard for our chances. Hopefully we can create off the rush without turning pucks over, because with their new acquisitions at the blueline they have a lot of quick forwards to add to their already fast forward corps. So if we turn pucks over, they’re just going to keep coming on odd-man rushes at us and our defensemen and goalie don’t need that.”
“You’ve got to get the puck deep and try to wear them out,” says Backstrom of the Rangers. “They’re collapsing. You’ve got to try to get pucks through from the blueline, too, because they’re blocking them pretty good.”
This spring will mark the third different coach and the fourth different system the Caps have taken into their four playoff series against the Rangers in the five-year span. Washington had a great deal of success with Oates’ system over the final three-quarters of the regular season and now it is anxious to road test that system in the playoffs.
“I think this [system] is going to be the most effective,” says Green. “I think that we’ve really grasped it. Everybody has bought into it and we’ve really been able to utilize our skill within the system. We’ll see how it goes here. Playoffs are always different and it might be a challenge, but we’re mentally prepared.”
The Rangers were a 10-3-1 club in the month of April, securing their playoff position with a strong finishing kick.
Because the lockout shortened the 2012-13 season to 48 games, Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist’s streak of seven straight seasons with 30 or more wins came to an end. But Lundqvist’s 24 wins were tied for the most in the NHL and he finished fifth in save pct. (.926) and seventh in GAA (2.05) in 2012-13.
New York’s defense is led by workhorses Dan Girardi and Ryan McDonagh. Both players finished among the league’s top 20 in average ice time per game by defensemen who played in 24 or more games. Marc Staal would likely own that distinction as well, but an eye injury limited him to just 21 games during the regular season. The Rangers are hopeful that Staal may be able to return to the lineup at some point during the first round.
In his third NHL season, center Derek Stepan led the Rangers in scoring with 44 points, leapfrogging veteran Brad Richards on the New York depth chart. Stepan is one of the league’s hottest players as the playoffs get underway; he totaled eight goals and 19 points to go along with a plus-14 in 14 April games.
Stepan scored three of the eight goals New York netted against Washington during the regular season.
Stepan centers for Carl Hagelin and Rangers captain Ryan Callahan. Richards is in the middle of a unit with Rick Nash and Mats Zuccarello. In his first season with the Rangers, Nash racked up his ninth straight 20-goal season in the NHL.
At the April 3 trade deadline, the Rangers added power forward Ryane Clowe, center Derick Brassard, feisty winger Derek Dorsett and young defenseman John Moore. New York gave up only Marian Gaborik from its active roster in those transactions, so the team’s depth has improved greatly in the last month.
Clowe, Dorsett and Rangers center Brian Boyle are ailing as the series gets underway, and none are expected to play in Game 1. All are considered possibilities to return at some point during the first round.
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