Derek Stepan and Alex Ovechkin, two of the hottest NHL players of late, will meet for the third time in as many postseasons.
As part of Tuesday night’s commencement of the 2013 Stanley Cup playoffs, the defending champion Los Angeles Kings will again face one of their 2012 victims, the St. Louis Blues. As additional series' get underway later in the week, the New York Rangers-Washington Capitals matchup will officially become the most frequent postseason card since the 2004-05 lockout.
Both first-round fixtures are rematches of last season’s second round and, as an added bonus, the three teams involved who are not the defending champion feature one of the NHL’s three stars of the month for April 2013.
One involves two franchises far removed from their best years and crossing paths for the third year in a row and the fourth time in five tournaments. The other has one party seeking the NHL’s first repeat championship in 15 years and another craving a delectable follow-up on its surprise surge of 2011-12.
The Kings and Blues were in similar states when they met 12 months ago, even if their seeds did not reflect it. Both had reversed their fortunes and rapidly emerged as postseason qualifiers by way of midseason coaching changes, Daryl Sutter succeeding Terry Murray in L.A. and Ken Hitchcock supplanting Davis Payne in St. Louis.
As it happened, there would be a vast discrepancy in unfinished business working against the second-place, Central Division champion Blues. Los Angeles swept through the second round as part of its 16-4 romp to the Cup.
If St. Louis is to build on its instantaneous foundation under Hitchcock without hesitation, it will have to be equally apt to trip up a historic endeavor. Of the four major sports circuits on this continent, the NHL has waited the longest for a team to cultivate back-to-back playoff titles.
Adding to the L.A. aspect of the storyline, the last repeat champion in any sport was none other than the Kings’ Staples Center co-tenant, the Lakers, who claimed the NBA crown in 2009 and again in 2010.
With the three-month delay to the 2012-13 NHL season, there may be no more opportune time for a team to successfully defend its title. The longer gap between last spring’s celebration and the return to normal business should render the Kings better equipped for another postseason sprint, which therefore denies their adversaries any edge in that regard.
That theory makes the conflicting endeavors to sustain or revoke a team’s reign as champions a little more intriguing than usual.
With that said, it is still hard to match a card such as Capitals-Rangers, with the core groups of both teams each seeking first-time fulfillment and renewing a soon-to-be peerless familiarity.
The recent history of the red-and-blue rivalry began in the opening round in 2009, when an upset-minded band of Blueshirts sculpted a 3-1 advantage, only to crumble on their first two chances to polish off the Caps by a combined 9-3 score. Washington subsequently claimed Game 7, 2-1, with the decisive goal coming with 4:59 left in regulation.
A 2011 rematch at the same stage saw a similar seeding for each side and a swifter decision, with Washington abolishing the Rangers in five games.
Last year was all but a 180-degree reversal. The Rangers rose from eighth to first in the East and the Capitals were stuck facing them after advancing to the conference semifinals as the seventh-place entrant.
Not unlike 2009, it would be a classic arm-wrestling series decided by another 2-1 Game 7, this one going to the Blueshirts at their mansion.
The Rangers were forced to settle for a divisional laurel as their only new banner from 2012. Meanwhile, just like St. Louis, Washington is still without so much as a trip to the conference finals in recent memory.
Even with the unique elements surrounding the Kings’ drive for a second consecutive Cup, the fact remains that vinegar tastes more acrid when there are no breaks for sweetness between doses.
At least one party in the Capitals-Rangers matchup is guaranteed to endure more of that this season, which is why their fourth meeting in five playoffs enters this tournament with a little more intrigue than Kings-Blues.