A couple of familiar postseason combatants will kick off the best-of-seven Eastern Conference quarterfinals on Thursday, as the Washington Capitals host the New York Rangers in Game 1 at Verizon Center.
Washington and New York are meeting in the playoffs for the fourth time in the past five years. The Capitals took the first two encounters before the Rangers won a thrilling seven-game series in last year's conference semifinals. The final six games of the series were decided by a single goal and the Rangers won twice after regulation, including a three-overtime victory in Game 3.
The third-seeded Capitals didn't look like they would be making a sixth straight trip to the playoffs in mid-March, when they were still trying to dig themselves out of a season-opening 2-8-1 hole. But the Capitals, and especially star winger Alex Ovechkin, caught fire down the stretch and not only punched a return trip to the playoffs, but did so with their fifth Southeast Division title in six years.
Few teams enter the postseason as hot as Washington, which is taking aim at its first Stanley Cup championship. The Capitals went 15-2-2 over their final 19 games, winning the division crown by six points over the Winnipeg Jets.
It's no surprise that Ovechkin paved the way en route to winning the Maurice "Rocket" Richard Trophy for the third time in his career as the league's top goal scorer. He ended the shortened season with 32 goals in 48 games, recording 22 of those over his final 21 contests.
And of course, Ovechkin's scoring fury only made those around him better. Center Nicklas Backstrom logged 15 assists in 13 games in April and 27 helpers over his final 29 games after notching just 13 assists in his first 19 games. His 40 assists ranked third in the NHL at season's end.
Center Mike Ribeiro, meanwhile, added depth down the middle in his first season with the club. He ended the campaign with 36 assists and was second on the club with 49 points behind only Ovechkin's 56.
Ribeiro's addition, as well as return to health by defenseman Mike Green, helped Washington lead the NHL with a 26.8 percent power play and the club's 3.04 goals per game were tied for fourth in the league.
Washington has two outstanding defenders to lean on in the young-but-seasoned John Carlson and Karl Alzner. Carlson can chip in on the offensive side of things and had 22 points, while Alzner looks to shut down opposing scorers.
Given the bulk of the work during the regular season, Braden Holtby went 23-12-1 with a 2.58 goals against average and .920 save percentage in 36 games to emerge as a solid backstop. Like the rest of the club, he got better as the season went on.
Ovechkin has been a solid playoff performer in his career, notching 30 goals and 29 assists in 51 games and the majority of the Capitals roster has postseason experience.
The Rangers came into the lockout-shortened season as heavy contenders to challenge for a Stanley Cup championship after pulling off a trade to acquire winger Rick Nash in the offseason. While Nash did his part, it took another couple of trades to finally get the Rangers going.
Following an inconsistent two-plus months to begin the season, the Rangers hit their groove in April and went 10-3-1 in the month while winning five of their final six games to claim their seventh playoff berth in eight seasons.
And that finish has some thinking that the sixth-seeded Blueshirts are good enough to lift the Cup for the first time since 1994.
"We felt we were in a fight, (like) that we're going to be in here as we start Thursday, for the past month trying to crawl in here (into the playoffs)," noted Rangers head coach John Tortorella. "I think our players have handled a number of different situations on a flat line; not getting too high, not getting too low, handling momentum of games, finding ways to win. All certain things that's going to be needed in the playoffs. Our group feels good."
New York has to feel good about having Nash on board. The winger led the Rangers with 21 goals and was second to the emerging Derek Stepan with 42 points. That production helped Nash return to the playoffs for the first time since 2009 with the Columbus Blue Jackets, a trip that ended after just four games.
Fellow forward Brad Richards had an up-and-down season, but finished strong with 11 points in his final six games, while do-it-all captain Ryan Callahan was third on the team with 16 goals and fourth in points with 31.
But that group had help. Stepan finished his third NHL season with a team-high 44 points off 18 goals and 26 assists and finished among the league leaders with a plus-25 rating. The 22-year-old logged eight goals and 19 points over 14 games in April.
Speedster Carl Hagelin added 10 goals and 24 points and center Derick Brassard contributed 11 points in 13 games after coming over with injured forward Derek Dorsett and defenseman John Moore in a deadline-day deal with the Columbus Blue Jackets for Marian Gaborik.
The Rangers also yielded three draft picks to get winger Ryane Clowe from the San Jose Sharks, and while he managed just three goals and five assists in 12 games, his size does help the rest of his line. However, Clowe missed the regular-season finale with an undisclosed injury and expects to miss tonight's opener.
The Gaborik trade also netted the Rangers Moore and he has been solid for a defense group that hasn't had Marc Staal since he suffered a serious eye injury on March 5. Staal hopes to return for this series, but is doubtful for Game 1.
Until Staal returns, Dan Girardi, Ryan McDonagh and Michael Del Zotto will continue to log 24-plus minutes per game to pace a solid defensive grouping.
And even when the Rangers do make mistakes, reigning Vezina Trophy winner Henrik Lundqvist is there to bail them out. There are few, if any, goaltenders better in the NHL and Lundqvist tied for the league lead with 24 wins to go along with a 2.05 goals against average and .926 save percentage while making 43 starts.
New York will hope that fatigue won't be a factor for Lundqvist, who is under .500 for his career in the playoffs at 25-30 despite a 2.31 GAA and six shutouts.
The Rangers went 2-0-1 in this year's season series against Washington, with Stepan scoring three goals in three games. Richards and Hagelin both had a goal and two assists, while Lundqvist went 1-0-1 with a 1.44 GAA in two starts.
Holtby, who had a 1.90 GAA in last year's playoff meeting, had a 2.69 GAA in the three regular-season meetings, while Ovechkin, Carlson and Backstrom all had a goal and an assist as the Caps were limited to four goals in the three games.
Washington has won four of the seven all-time playoff series meetings, dating back to 1986.
Game 2 of this series is set for Saturday in Washington. The Capitals were 15-8-1 as the home team during the regular season, while New York was just 10-12-2 on the road.