The top-seeded New York Rangers survived a tough test in the opening round of the playoffs and will take on the surprising Washington Capitals today at Madison Square Garden for Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals.
The Rangers were forced to come back from a 3-2 series deficit to topple the eighth-seeded Ottawa Senators in the conference quarterfinals. New York ultimately won Thursday's Game 7 by a 2-1 score in regulation to advance into the second round for the first time since 2008.
New York, which won the Atlantic Division title this season, is the top seed in the East for the first time since it won its last Stanley Cup title in 1994. The Rangers will be aiming for their first conference finals appearance since 1997.
The Rangers defeated Ottawa in the first round by utilizing their superior defense and goaltending, a formula that has helped them be successful all year long. Under head coach John Tortorella, New York was ranked third in the NHL this season in goals allowed, yielding an average of just 2.22 goals per contest. The Blueshirts did even better than that in the first round, surrendering just 13 goals over the seven games.
New York's best player is often goaltender Henrik Lundqvist, a four-time Vezina Trophy finalist. In addition to landing another Vezina nod this season, the 30-year-old Swede was also named as a finalist for the Hart Trophy on Friday.
Lundqvist posted terrific numbers in the first round against Ottawa, allowing 12 goals on 217 shots for a .945 save percentage and a 1.70 goals-against average. He is 19-23 all-time in the postseason with a 2.45 GAA and a .915 save percentage.
While the Rangers boast a world-class goaltender and one of the best defensive units in the league, New York's forward depth leaves something to be desired. The team's offense would certainly improve if top sniper Marian Gaborik can get his game back on track after a disappointing first round. The speedy Gaborik led the Rangers with 41 goals and 76 points during the regular season, but he finished with one goal and two assists against Ottawa and was held pointless in the last three games of the series.
Brian Boyle led the club with three goals against Ottawa, but his status for the conference semifinals is cloudy. Boyle suffered a concussion in Game 5 against Ottawa and sat out the last two games of the series, but the centerman is questionable for Game 1. Forward Brandon Dubinsky is also questionable for today with a leg injury suffered in Game 7 against Ottawa.
Top centerman Brad Richards led New York with five points on two goals and three assists in the opening round. Richards, a proven playoff performer who won the Conn Smythe Trophy during Tampa Bay's Stanley Cup title in 2004, is partaking in his first playoff run as a Ranger.
The Rangers are well-established as a defense-first team, but Washington head coach Dale Hunter has somehow instilled the same qualities in a Capitals team that was known in recent years for scoring and not much else.
Hunter's system worked like a charm in Round 1, as the seventh-seeded Capitals ousted the defending Stanley Cup champion Boston Bruins in the conference quarterfinals. Washington beat the Bruins in seven games, outscoring the second-seeded club by a 16-15 margin in an tightly-contested series.
One issue with the Capitals system is that Washington's star sniper Alex Ovechkin has seen his ice time dwindle under Hunter, who took over the head coaching job when Bruce Boudreau was fired in late November. While other Capitals like Nicklas Backstrom and Alexander Semin, who are both known mostly for their scoring, have bought into Hunter's strategy, Ovechkin is still struggling to mesh with the new coach's philosophy.
Even with his reduced ice time, Ovechkin managed to lead all Washington players with five points (2G, 3A) in the opening round of the postseason.
Hunter has been given a great deal of credit for Washington's upset of the Bruins in the first round, and deservedly so, but it's hard to ignore the contributions of rookie goaltender Braden Holtby. The 22-year-old Holtby was forced into a starting role in Round 1 after Washington's top-two netminders -- Tomas Vokoun and Michal Neuvirth -- were both sidelined with injuries heading into the playoffs. Neuvirth has since returned to health, but Hunter was wise to keep using the red-hot rookie as the starter.
Holtby had 21 games of regular-season experience under his belt, but had never seen action in an NHL playoff game before Game 1 against the Bruins. A fourth- round draft pick by Washington in 2008, Holtby stopped 233-of-248 shots in the seven games against Boston for a .940 save percentage and a 2.00 goals-against average. He also won Game 7 in overtime, stopping 31-of-32 shots to shock the Bruins.
The Rangers and Caps split four meetings this year with each team winning a game at home and on the road. Overall, Washington outscored the Blueshirts by a 13-11 margin during the 2011-12 season series.
Lundqvist played in three of the four games against the Capitals in the regular season and went 2-1 with a 3.00 GAA and .859 save percentage. Holtby faced the Rangers once this season on April 7 in New York and stopped 35-of-36 shots to help Washington earn a 4-1 victory. However, the Rangers had little to play for when they faced Holtby a few weeks ago, having already clinched the division title and the top seed in the East.
This marks the seventh playoff series between the Rangers and Capitals and Washington has taken four of those six matchups. The Capitals beat New York in the conference quarterfinals in both 2009 and 2011, winning last year's series in just five games. The last time the Rangers defeated Washington was in the 1994 conference semifinals.
"It is the past and you try not to think about it, but it's hard because they knocked us out two different years. We really want to beat this team. It's a great challenge for us to face this team now. They're playing well, they're a confident group. It's going to be exciting and interesting to see how this plays out," said Lundqvist of New York's recent playoff history against the Caps.
Game 2 of this best-of-seven series is scheduled for Monday night in New York.