NHL Playoffs: 5 Most Important Storylines for Wednesday's Games

Ryan O'LearyFeatured Columnist IMay 2, 2012

Alex Ovechkin and the Caps look to utilize home ice to take a 2-1 series lead on the New York Rangers.
Alex Ovechkin and the Caps look to utilize home ice to take a 2-1 series lead on the New York Rangers.Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

With a pair of critical Game 3s on the slate tonight, teams and fans are on edge as both series will take on a different contour and personality upon the conclusion of this evening's proceedings.

The early game features the New York Rangers heading to the nation's capital to face the Washington Capitals, who earned a split at Madison Square Garden after Alexander Ovechkin's power play goal in the third period of Game 2.

Nashville is the site of a major Western Conference tussle as the Predators fight for their playoff lives against the Coyotes after Phoenix took both games on home ice.

Here are a smattering of the key storylines that will shape tonight's games.



1. Predators' Defense


Or lack thereof, to be frank. A team that ranked in the top ten in goals against (2.50) this year surrendered a total of nine goals to the Coyotes in the first two games.

Nashville must get back to their defensive style, or a sweep might be in order. Goaltender Pekka Rinne, sporting an uncharacteristic 2.51 GAA in the playoffs, has to be better for Nashville to claw back into this series, period.

Nashville's defenders must be better as well, especially the big two. Shea Weber and Ryan Suter are a combined minus-six, with just three points through the first two games. If they don't lead this team back, nobody will. Look for Weber and Suter to step up their play in Game 3. 



2. Predators' Distractions


As we all know by now, forwards Alexander Radulov and Andrei Kostitsyn will not be in uniform for the Preds tonight after Barry Trotz suspended the pair for violation of team rules. Call it what you will, but it's a wake up call for a team that has been less than stellar in a year where they could realize their best opportunity to make a Stanley Cup.

In Trotz' mind, nobody is safe. It's a shot across the bow to his team that must wake up, or they will be cleaning out their locker room far too soon.



3. Mike Smith


Talking about Mike Smith might seem cliche, but in all honesty, he's the Coyotes' anchor and has been for quite some time now, including late in the regular season.

The "Barn on Broadway" (Bridgestone Arena) will be electric tonight as fans look to will their team back and Smith will be relied upon to keep the 'Yotes calm by weathering the early attack. Stability on the back end will give the remainder of the team confidence when things are most hectic on the road.



4. Alexander Ovechkin, the "Great Eight"


Switching gears to the Eastern Conference, it's funny how one player can change the attitude and makeup of a team. Ovechkin's winner on Monday night not only turned the tide of the series, but will give the Caps a spark heading into Game 3.

Ovechkin is the talisman of the Washington Capitals and he is the leader. If he plays that way, providing big goals in big moments, the Capitals can take hold of this series.



5. New York and Washington Special Teams

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 28:  Henrik Lundqvist #30 of the New York Rangers reacts after their 3 to 1 win over the Washington Capitals in Game One of the Eastern Conference Semifinals during the 2012 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Madison Square Garden on April 2
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images


As was clearly displayed on Monday night, special teams and discipline mean a great deal to any single hockey game, but more importantly, a series.

Brad Richards' penalty in the third period not only led to Ovechkin's game winner, but it let the Caps back into this series. The Rangers should be heading to D.C. with a 2-0 lead, but now they're in a serious fight to move deeper into the playoffs.

Staying out of the penalty box is crucial for both teams, but for Washington, they must convert more man-advantage situations, going just 1-for-7 on the power play so far this series.

New York does not surrender a lot 5-on-5 goals (or many goals in general for that matter), making it even more important that Washington takes full advantage on the power play.


What are your key storylines for tonight? And, predict a winner in the comments below!