Caps hope to live up to hype against NY

DAN DI SCIULLO, Sports Network

, Last Updated: 2:56 PM ET

WASHINGTON CAPITALS (1st seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 48-23-11

2010 PLAYOFFS: Lost to Montreal 4-3 in conference quarterfinals

(Sports Network) - After failing to live up to lofty postseason expectations for three straight years, the Washington Capitals and head coach Bruce Boudreau decided some things had to change.

In previous years the Capitals only went as far as their high-powered offense would take them, but Boudreau hopes a newfound dedication to responsible defensive play will serve his club well this time around.

Last season, the Capitals amassed a franchise-record 121 points en route to winning the Presidents' Trophy for the first time in club history. That team was driven primarily by offense, as Washington led the NHL in goals scored, while finishing 16th in goals allowed.

This year, Washington made a late run to take the top seed in the East and the Caps did so with a vastly improved defense. The Capitals finished fourth in the NHL with 191 goals allowed this year compared to the 227 scores they let up in 2009-10.

Boudreau did have to sacrifice a great deal of offense to get his club playing the right way in its own end of the rink. Washington was 19th in the NHL with 219 goals -- nearly 100 tallies less than the Caps had when they led the league with 313 scores a year ago.

The new strategy resulted in down statistical years for Washington's top offensive performers, including Alex Ovechkin. But, after losing in the first round of the playoffs for the second time in three years last spring, Ovie and his teammates were willing to accept a dip in personal stats in order to become a better team.

"Things haven't worked out like we'd have liked it to the last two or three years," said Boudreau of his club's recent playoff performances. "But we're ready and they want to play. It should be a good series."

Ovechkin was still Washington's best offensive player this season despite posting career-lows in goals (32) and points (85). The 25-year-old had recorded at least 50 goals and 100 points in each of his previous three campaign.

With 40 points (20 goals, 20 assists) in 28 career playoff games, scoring in the postseason has not been a problem for Ovechkin, but Washington's captain has been criticized for disappearing at crunch time in the past. He needs to come through in the big spots this year if his team is going to make a deep run to the postseason.

To help alleviate the pressure placed on Ovechkin this time of year, the Capitals are also going to need increased scoring from the likes of Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin. Backstrom had a career-low 65 points (18g, 47a) this year and Semin dropped from 40 goals and 84 points in 2009-10 to 28 markers and 54 points this season.

Semin enters this postseason having gone without a goal in 14 straight playoff contests. Last year, he had just two assists when top-seeded Washington bowed out in seven games to the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens. Semin did have possibly the best postseason series of his career against the Rangers in 2009, logging five goals and three assists in seven games during an opening-round series win over New York.

The always reliable Mike Knuble notched 20 goals or more for the eighth straight season this year, posting 24 goals. However, the 38-year-old Knuble had just one game-winning goal this year after recording 11 GWGs over the previous two seasons.

The addition of veteran centerman Jason Arnott at the trade deadline could pay dividends in this year's postseason. Arnott, who had four goals and three assists in 11 games with the Caps after coming over from New Jersey, has played in 106 career playoff tests and won a Stanley Cup with the Devils in 2000.

With the help of two impressive youngsters, Washington's defensive corps appears to be much improved, but the health of top offensive blueliner Mike Green is a concern.

Green is expected to be available for the start of this series despite sitting out the last 20 games of the regular season with a concussion. Green was much maligned in last year's postseason for his lapses at the defensive end of the ice, but his ability to score from the blue line is essential to Washington's success.

The development of young blueliners John Carlson and Karl Alzner is a great sign for the Caps. At just 21 years of age, Carlson posted seven goals, 30 assists and a plus-21 rating while playing in all 82 games for Washington this year. His partner, Alzner, who is 22 years old, did not have the same success offensively with two goals and 12 points, but he was a plus-14 in 82 games.

Washington's blue line did suffer a big blow late in the season when Dennis Wideman suffered a leg hematoma that could keep him out for the entire first round. Wideman, who came to Washington in a trade with Florida back in February, had 10 goals and 40 points in 75 combined games for the Panthers and Caps this season and his two-way play will be missed for at least the first part of the upcoming series.

Caps blueliner Tom Poti has also been sidelined since the middle of January with a groin injury and his status for this series is uncertain.

Washington boasts a trio of impressive young goaltenders, but it's unclear which one of them is going to be the club's primary netminder in the postseason.

Michal Neuvirth, 23, saw the most action in net this year and went 27-12-4 with a 2.45 goals-against average in 48 games. The Czech backstop posted a strong 5-1-0 record in his last six games of the regular season, and although he has never manned the crease in an NHL playoff game, Neuvirth has the inside track on the Game 1 start.

However, Boudreau could rely on Semyon Varlamov, the club's playoff goaltender in each of the past two seasons, should Neuvirth falter. Varlamov was 11-9-5 with a 2.23 GAA in an injury-plagued year in 2010-11, but at just 22 years of age, the Russian has played in 19 career playoff tilts, winning 10 of them while posting a 2.49 GAA.

Another option in net for Boudreau is the 21-year-old Braden Holtby, who was 10-2-2 with a sparkling 1.79 GAA and a .934 save percentage in his first 14 NHL games this year.

After going 1-for-33 on the man advantage in last year's playoff loss to Montreal, Washington's power play unit dropped from first overall in the 2009-10 regular season to 16th this year. The Caps did have the league's second-best penalty killing this season after finishing 25th in that category a year ago.

NEW YORK RANGERS (8th seed, East)

REGULAR SEASON RECORD: 44-33-5

2010 PLAYOFFS: Did not qualify

(Sports Network) - The Rangers were knocked out of playoff contention thanks to a shootout loss to Philadelphia on the final day of the 2009-10 campaign and New York's postseason quest came down to the last weekend of the regular season once again.

A victory by the Rangers on the last Saturday of the regular season combined with a loss by Carolina later that night gave head coach John Tortorella's club the East's eighth seed as well as a fifth trip to the postseason in six years.

The Rangers are a club that struggles with consistency on offense and, as a result, New York relies heavily on goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.

Lundqvist was a workhorse once again in 2010-11, although his 68 games played were the fewest for the Swede since his rookie year of 2005-06. The 29-year- old went 36-27-5 with a 2.28 GAA and he also set career-bests in save percentage (.923) and shutouts (11).

However, Lundqvist has a career record of 14-16 in the playoffs and the Rangers have lost four of the six postseason series with Hank as the No. 1 goaltender. Lundqvist's last playoff series was against Washington in 2009 and he yielded 19 goals on 207 shots as his team lost in seven games. He may need to be New York's best player in the opening round if the Blueshirts plan on getting past the Capitals this year.

The Rangers wound up with five more goals than Washington during this year's regular season, but you'd be hard-pressed to find anybody who thinks New York has the better offensive team in this series.

New York had just one player with over 50 points this season, as Brandon Dubinsky posted a career-best 54 points and led his club in both goals (24) and assists (30).

Although the Rangers did not have anybody reach 25 goals this year, Dubinsky, Ryan Callahan, Marian Gaborik, Brian Boyle and Derek Stepan all had 20 or more tallies. Callahan, however, is out for the rest of the season after suffering a broken ankle earlier this month while blocking a shot.

Gaborik holds the key to New York's offensive success, but the enigmatic forward is coming off an disappointing second season in the Big Apple. Gaborik had 42 goals and 86 points with the Rangers in 2009-10, but managed just 22 tallies and 48 points this season.

Gaborik hasn't been very successful in the postseason during his career either, but this will be his first playoff run with the Rangers. After notching nine goals and eight assists in 18 games with Minnesota in the 2003 playoffs, Gaborik has recorded just three goals and two assists in his last 11 postseason tests.

Rookie Derek Stepan and second-year player Artem Anisimov had 45 and 44 points, respectively, this year and they need to pick up some of the scoring slack for the slack for Callahan in the postseason.

Veteran forwards Chris Drury and Vinny Prospal combined to play just 53 games this season, but both players could play big roles for New York in this series.

Drury returned from a two-month absence to score a big goal for the Rangers in their final game of the season, but that was his only score in 24 contests this year. However, the captain has 47 goals in 130 career playoff games and helped Colorado win a Stanley Cup in 2001.

Prospal had nine goals and 23 points in 29 games this year after missing the first 53 tests following knee surgery. His last playoff season came with Philadelphia in 2008, when Prospal had three goals and 10 assists to help the Flyers reach the conference finals.

The Rangers defense and the steady play of Lundqvist made New York the fifth- hardest team to score against this year, but the club's blue line is lacking in playoff experience. In fact, three members of New York's defensive rotation -- Michael Sauer, Matt Gilroy and Ryan McDonagh -- have never played in a postseason game at the NHL level.

Bryan McCabe was acquired at the trade deadline from Florida to provide offense and veteran leadership at the back end and he had two goals and four assists in 19 games with the Rangers.

At 24 years of age, Marc Staal is the club's best all-around defenseman and he has 17 games of playoff experience under his belt. He had seven goals, 22 assists and a plus-eight rating in 77 games for the Rangers this season.

Dan Girardi, 26, is also coming off his best offensive season with 31 points (4g, 27a) from the blue line. However, he has posted just three assists and a minus-6 rating in 27 career playoff games with the Rangers.

New York was 18th in the league this year in power-play efficiency and Tortorella's troops were 10th in the league in penalty killing.

Since winning a Stanley Cup as Tampa Bay's head coach in 2004, Tortorella has lost all three of his playoff series, including his only trip to the postseason with the Rangers in 2009.

MATCHUP

The Capitals haven't made it past the second round of the postseason since their run to the Cup Finals in 1998, but Washington needs to be careful not to look past the Rangers in Round 1.

Then again, it will be hard for Washington to take New York lightly considering the way the season series went in 2010-11. After losing their first game against the Caps back in November, the Rangers won the final three meetings and outscored Washington by a combined 15-1 margin in those tests.

But, regular-season matchups don't always translate to the playoffs and Washington is counting on that fact in this series. The stake are extremely high for Boudreau, who could find himself out of a job if the Rangers are able to pull off the opening-round upset.

These clubs have met five times in the playoffs and Washington has won three of those series.

Ovechkin had no goals and two assists in four games versus New York this year, but the two-time Hart Trophy winner is always a threat to score. The Rangers will need to contain Ovechkin, but not at the expense of letting Washington's deeper supporting cast run wild.

Lundqvist holds the key to an upset, but will his heavy regular-season workload contribute to another disappointing postseason from the Swede?

In the end, Boudreau's tinkering has helped Washington tighten up a once- porous defense in the regular season, but it still remains to be seen if the Caps can stick to the plan in the playoffs.

Washington's real marker for success is how deep the club can go in the postseason, but that road has to start somewhere. The Caps will face a tough test from the Rangers, but they should ultimately move on to the next stage.

Sports Network predicted outcome: Capitals in 6


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