After many trials and plenty of tribulation, the New York Rangers are set to face the Washington Capitals in the first round of the 2013 Stanley Cup Playoffs.
The Capitals are one of the hottest teams in the league and finished the month of April on an absolute tear. Alexander Ovechkin has been an unstoppable force, and will look to carry his team to the Stanley Cup Finals for this first time in his career.
Across the way, the Rangers were forced to win some hockey games late in the season to make the playoffs, but managed to secure points when they needed them the most. This is still the same team that many pundits picked to win the Stanley Cup during the offseason, and there's no reason to believe this won't be one hell of a series.
New York Rangers: After finally bringing in Rick Nash during the offseason, the Rangers seemed poised to take charge of the Atlantic Division. They still had Marian Gaborik in place, along with Brad Richards, an emerging star in Derek Stepan and King Henrik Lundqvist in net.
New York fought inconsistent play early, and GM Glen Sather had seen enough by the time the trade deadline rolled around.
He dealt struggling star Gaborik to the Columbus Blue Jackets, re-acquiring some of the depth that had been given up in the Nash trade. The new additions proved vital in New York's push for the playoffs, as both Derick Brassard and defenseman John Moore have been outstanding.
Washington Capitals: It's an oversimplification of a season, but the resurgence of the Capitals can be boiled down to two men: Alex Ovechkin and Adam Oates.
While Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom (among others) have certainly seen their play take in 2013, the nod has to go to AO and Oates for working together to really turn this team around. It took a few months for Ovechkin to get used to being used at right wing, but once it clicked it resulted in an explosion.
He's scored 14 goals in April alone, amassing a total of 32 and beating out Steven Stamkos by three goals for a Rocket Richard. And they said this guy couldn't score goals any more.
The New York Rangers are glad to be in the playoffs, but don't expect them to take on a "just glad to be here" approach. This is a team with something to prove after a disappointing regular season. They won't carry it around like baggage, but instead use it as motivation to prove all the doubters wrong.
Alex Ovechkin and the Washington Capitals have similar motivations, after many wrote them off as uninspired and un-coachable.
Adam Oates took over behind the bench and made building trust with his players a priority instead of just revamping old systems and yelling a whole lot—that seemed to be the way several coaches had tried to handle this Caps team, but to no avail.
The long approach worked for the new coach, and the Capitals really started to fly after the trade deadline. The addition of Martin Erat has been a great one, and Washington has a top-six that is among the best in the NHL.
This will be the first playoffs where Derek Stepan is expected to be a top point producer for his club, and it will be interesting to see how he deals with the extra attention over a long series.
And of course, Henrik Lundqvist will be hungry to push his team beyond the Eastern Conference finals for the first time in his career.
No shortage of motivations in this series, and this has all the makings of a possible classic.
Rick Nash, New York Rangers: This is what Rick Nash came to New York for, and this is why the Rangers aggressively pursued him across two different trade deadlines and two separate drafts.
After facing years of futility with the Columbus Blue Jackets, the All-Star winger finally asked for a trade out and received his wish when he was dealt to the Big Apple. Now it's time for him to prove that he's a player that's capable of thriving under the brightest of spotlights.
His previous trip to the playoffs was as an eighth seed in Columbus, and his team was swept out by the powerful Detroit Red Wings. No one was expecting big things from either him or his squad at that point. That isn't the case anymore in New York.
Nash has been one of the most consistent scoring threats for the Rangers this season, and he'll have to continue to generate chances and cash in on them for New York to get beyond the Capitals.
Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals: No surprise here.
Few players are as important to the success of their team as Alex Ovechkin. Washington has other scoring threats, sure. Nicklas Backstrom, Mike Ribeiro and Mike Green are all capable of contributing big offensive numbers.
None of them bring to the table the dynamic offensive ability that the Great 8 does.
He's always been an electric shooter, and has fired his way to another Rocket Richard trophy as the league's top goal scorer. This season has seen Ovechkin add a slick passing element to his game, and now teams are never quite sure if it's Ovie of Backstrom that will be looking for the finish.
He's arguably the most dangerous offensive force in the NHL right now, and he's been playing like a locomotive lately. It's going to be fun watching him battle against the tough-as-nails Rangers defense.
Henrik Lundqvist, New York Rangers: He's been among the best goaltenders in the NHL since breaking into the league in 2005, and that hasn't changed in 2013. While Lundqvist hasn't enjoyed the same amount of press as he's used to, he's still posted Vezina-worthy numbers.
He's been a workhorse for the Rangers down the stretch, playing in a whopping 42 games in this truncated season. All King has done in response to the workload is post a 2.10 GAA to go along with a .925 save percentage.
The Rangers are a tough team defensively and block a ton of shots. Get a puck through that wall of flesh and it still has to get behind one of the best goalies in the game. That's a tough enough scenario in a single game during the regular season.
This scenario can quickly turn into a private hell for offenses across a potential seven-game series.
Braden Holtby, Washington Capitals: No one is going to confuse Holtby for Lundqvist, but he's been everything that Washington has needed him to be throughout the regular season. A Chris Osgood-like figure in the net—minus the Cup rings—if you will.
He started 36 games for the Caps this season, taking 23 of them as victories. His GAA of 2.58 is solid but unspectacular, as is his .920 save percentage. Holtby hasn't been required to steal any games for Washington, as the team continues to pile up goals in front of him.
That doesn't mean that the lesser known of the two netminders doesn't know how to bring it during the playoffs, however.
He was one of the best players for the Capitals during the postseason last year, as he played in back-to-back seven-game series and won one of them. He posted a 1.95 GAA through those 14 hard-fought games, and had a glistening save percentage, sitting at .935.
The biggest mismatch is between the two aforementioned goalies.
Braden Holtby is a good goaltender in this league at this point, but staring at him from across the rink will be one of the few truly elite netminders in the NHL today. Few positions have a rotating stall in front of them like the net for a lot of teams around league, but the New York Rangers haven't had to worry about their own goal in eight years.
There's a good reason for that.
Lundqvist has been remarkably consistent and has great mental fortitude. He's tough to knock off his game and if there's a big save to be made this is probably the guy you want making a desperation dive across the crease.
Holtby was outstanding last season during the playoffs, but he'll have his hands full trying to duplicate that success against a New York team that is suddenly capable of rolling four very solid lines.
That isn't to say that the youngster won't be up to the task—it is to say that Holtby has a long way to go before he can even be mentioned in the same breath as Lundqvist, as least as an equal. He'll be an underdog here, and he'll be aware of that. Few things can motivate a goalie like trying to out-battle one of the best in the world.
As it stands right now though, the biggest mismatch between these two teams is between the pipes.
They can find a way to stop the goal-scoring machine that is the Washington Capitals as a whole. Even if you manage to shut down Alex Ovechkin and Nicklas Backstrom, the second unit featuring Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer and Martin Erat is every bit as deadly.
The Rangers can not afford to allow this set of games to become a sprint.
If the puck is flying north and south and all over the place, there's a good chance that the Rangers simply get out-gunned. They need to take the play to the walls, drive hard to the net and get in the kitchen of Alexander Ovechkin.
Ovie can't be allowed to take his one-timers, nor can he be allowed to gain speed through the neutral zone. The scouting report on him is the same as it's always been.
If New York can manage to turn this series into a gut-it-out, six- or seven-game series, then it's theirs for the taking. They need to block as many shots as they can and get Washington's offensive-minded blueliners turning around, and force them to make tough choices deep in their own zone with constant forechecking pressure.
They can turn the series into a gun show.
If the Capitals can force the Rangers to play an offensively open game, there's little reason to think that Washington couldn't outpace New York for four victories out of seven. Rick Nash could end up stealing a game, and Brad Richards tends to thrive in the playoffs, but the Caps just have more firepower from various positions on the ice.
Mike Green has finally returned to form after several seasons of doing his best Carlo Colaiacovo impression, and the second line has been deadly.
Oh. And some guy named Alex Ovechkin has taken to terrorizing defenses and netminders alike. It could be tricky, but if Washington can get the Rangers to open up the game a bit, then they can take the series.
The key for Washington will be to gain early leads over New York, forcing them to get on their horses a bit. Once the defense starts pinching and the neutral ice clears up, the Caps have the speed and firepower to put games away in a hurry after opening up a quick lead.
New York Rangers defeat the Washington Capitals in 7 games.
Double overtime at that.
This series is going to be one full of swings and peaks and valleys. There will be drama and it'll be a blast for NHL fans to watch.
There is a ton of star power in this series and both squads have much to prove, but the Rangers are a team that is built to stop teams like the Capitals. The games will be close—3-2's and 2-1's—and those kind of hockey games don't favor Washington.
Again, if the Caps can get the Rangers to open up, then this is anybody's playoff series. Lundqvist will be a difference-maker here, stealing a game or two and becoming the answer to Ovechkin while the Rangers get timely goal scoring from up and down their lineup.