By Brad Carroll
Something just wouldn't be right about a Stanley Cup postseason tournament that didn't involve the New York Rangers playing the Washington Capitals on the big stage. And this year will be no different, as the two rivals will square off in the Eastern Conference semifinals starting Thursday night. The two teams have played each other in the playoffs five of the last seven years, and ninth overall, with three of the last four going the full seven games. Now, that's a playoff rivalry that has some history, and make this year's version even better.
Here is our insider's breakdown on how each team can win the series, plus our prediction of who will actually advance to the Eastern Conference finals. We were right, by the way, on both of our picks last round, with the Rangers beating the Penguins in five and the Capitals outlasting the Islanders in seven.
No. 1 New York Rangers vs. No. 2 Washington Capitals
Keys To Rangers Winning: The success of the Blueshirts begins and ends with goaltender Henrik Lundqvist. If he's on, and the vast majority of the time he is, the Rangers are nearly impossible to beat. If he's off, the Rangers will be in a whole lot of trouble. Lundqvist allowed just one goal in each of the Rangers' victories over Pittsburgh last series, including two wins coming in overtime. In the one loss, Pittsburgh scored four times against The King. If the Capitals can't beat Lundqvist more than once a game, the series will be over quick. On offense, the Rangers are hurting, as forward Mats Zuccarello is out indefinitely. He had eight goals and five assists last postseason, so the Rangers will have to find a way to make up for that scoring. It should come in the form of Rick Nash, but we all know he struggles in the postseason. In 46 career playoff games, Nash has just six goals. He had one in the five-game series against Pittsburgh. During the regular season, Nash lit the lamp 42 times, so there's no reason why he shouldn't be scoring in the postseason. Whether it's Nash or someone else, the Rangers need to find someone who can score with Zuccarello out. On defense, the Rangers are built tough and should be able to disrupt Alex Ovechkin when he's in the New York zone. Plus, Kevin Klein returns after missing the first round with injury, which only increases what should be a persistent Rangers defense. The defense can't focus just on Ovechkin, however, as a new Russian star has emerged as a scoring force in Washington. Bottom line, if Lundquist is great and Nash is close to the player he was in the regular season on offense, the Rangers will win the series.
Keys To Capitals Winning: This could be the best Capitals team in years, and the reason is the defense has finally caught up to the offense in ability. In the recent past, it was all offense for Washington, with Ovechkin leading the way, and little defense. That worked wonders in the regular season, but the playoffs represent a completely different level of play, and the flashiness was quickly put to rest by strong defensive teams built for the second season. It's why the Capitals haven't made a Stanley Cup final since 1998, their one trip, despite great regular season records. This year is different. Yes, Ovechkin is still the leader of the team, and he's an MVP finalist once again, but the Caps now go three pairs deep on defense, hitting everything that moves on the ice. It helps that goaltender Braden Holtby has been on top of his game, with a 1.63 goals against average and .943 save percentage against the Islanders. The defense did its job in Game 7 against the Islanders, allowing just 11 shots on goal. That also allowed Holtby to get some rest, as he's played a ton this season, including 73 games in the regular season alone. If he's gassed in this series, the Capitals will have no shot. On offense, the Capitals need to improve on the power play, as they dropped from a tremendous 25 percent in the regular season to 14 against the Islanders. The key could be the continued emergence of Evgeny Kuznetsov, who had five points against the Islanders, including scoring the game-winning goal in Game 7. If Ovechkin, Kuznetsov and Nicklas Backstrom do their job on offense, and Holtby holds up, the Capitals can pull the upset.
Who Will Win?: Rangers-Capitals has all the makings for what could be the best series in this round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. While the Rangers are the heavy favorites, there is just something about this Capitals team that makes it impossible to pick again. So ...
CAPITALS WIN IN SIX