Washington Capitals vs. NY Rangers: 5 Keys for Caps to Win Their Playoff Series
Unlike last season, in which the top-seeded Rangers were heavy favorites to take down seventh-seeded Capitals in the quarterfinals, the Southeast Division champion Capitals appear poised to advance beyond conference quarterfinals for the third consecutive season.
It won't be easy, because there's a reason the gritty Rangers were two wins away from the Stanley Cup Final a year ago, but with the Caps offense looking better than it has in two seasons, there's cause for optimism in the nation's capital.
With the Caps' miraculous turnaround complete, here's a look at Washington's five keys to an opening-round series against John Tortorella's Rangers.
The Power Play
With the game's top-ranked power play, the Capitals essentially have a trump card to play against the Rangers, because in a tight series, special teams tend to be the tiebreaker in the postseason.
Adam Oates has done an outstanding job in his first season behind the Washington bench, and one of the major selling points of his hiring was how successful he's been in developing dangerous power-play units.
Since his arrival, the Caps have been downright deadly with the extra man, and Mike Green, Alex Ovechkin, Mike Ribeiro, Nicklas Backstrom and Troy Brouwer have bought in to his emphasis on puck movement.
If the Caps' power play is hot, they'll win the series. If not, the Rangers' stingy defensive mindset could win out.
Obviously, the Rangers hold the advantage in net, but that's to be expected when one team has a relatively untested first-year starter while the other has the reigning Vezina Trophy winner.
But that does not mean that Holtby is incapable of leading the Caps to a series win over New York, as the 23-year-old has been stellar in net all season for Washington and, on occasion, has stolen some games that the team had no business winning.
It will be critical for Holtby to get off to a strong start, because as we saw last year against Boston, once he gets into a groove, he's very difficult to beat.
New York's offense has been inconsistent, so if Holtby can shut the Rangers down early, there's reason to believe that he'll be able to shake their confidence.
This year, the offensive contributions from Mike Ribeiro, Troy Brouwer, Eric Fehr, Marcus Johansson and Joel Ward have been critical to the Caps' success.
Even on nights when Ovechkin and Backstrom are kept at bay, the Caps have demonstrated on a consistent basis that they have more than enough weapons up front to score with any team in the league, and against a defensive squad like New York, that trend will have to continue.
Brouwer and Ribeiro have been among the Caps' most reliable scoring threats from day one, and though the team will obviously live and die by its captain, the team's second wave of attack has to be putting points on the board.
Though George McPhee got panned for his decision to flip top prospect Filip Forsberg for former Predator Martin Erat, the Czech playmaker gives Washington two lines very capable of scoring on any given shift.
The Green Factor
For the first time since 2010, Mike Green has played like the force from the back end that emerged as one of the game's most dangerous offensive rearguards in recent NHL history.
With game-breaking speed and skill, Green has the capability to change the outcome of a game at a second's notice, and that's why he was twice selected as a first-team All-Star.
Though he's struggled with injuries over the last three seasons, the two-time Norris Trophy finalist rebounded during the latter stages of the season to lead all defensemen in goals with 12.
Is his defensive play still suspect at times? Sure, but when he's on, his booming shot, elusive skating and silky hands make him one of the players to watch in this series.
The Great Eight
Alex Ovechkin entered the season with arguably more pressure than any other NHL player, and though he struggled early on, he rebounded in a big way, and that's why the Caps are in the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Simply put, Ovechkin is the heart and soul of the Caps (regardless of what Dale Hunter thought), and this team cannot go deep without him leading the way offensively.
Fortunately, the two-time league MVP is coming off one of the most dominant stretches of his career, as Ovechkin's late surge vaulted him past Steven Stamkos in the race for the Rocket Richard Trophy in the final week of the season.
Yes, Nicklas Backstrom has to be great as well, because Ovechkin's ability to get quality scoring chances in the high slot depends on his star center's play, but when the Russian superstar is playing with confidence, he's virtually unstoppable.
For the first time in three years, Ovechkin is undoubtedly in the discussion for the Hart Trophy, and for that reason alone, his play could be the deciding factor in this series.