Capitals look to exorcise playoff demons against rival Rangers

One year ago, the Washington Capitals won the Presidents’ Trophy and took a 3-1 lead in their first-round series with the eighth-ranked Montreal Canadiens only to lose in seven games.

With the same one vs. eight matchup on the horizon, this time against the New York Rangers, the Capitals hope their new-found commitment to defence can lead them significantly further.

The Rangers won three of four in the season series against the Caps, outscoring them 18-to-6 in those games.

(1) Washington Capitals

The Capitals (48-23-11) made some huge philosophical changes this season. Gone are the gaudy goal totals and high-powered offence. Coach Bruce Boudreau leads his team into the playoffs with a renewed emphasis on defensive play.

While scoring is no longer the primary focus, the Caps still have some dangerous snipers, led by two-time Hart Trophy winner Alexander Ovechkin. Joining him on the top line are Nicklas Backstrom and Mike Knuble.

Alexander Semin, who has zero goals in 14 career post-season games, spearheads the second unit alongside Brooks Laich and veteran Jason Arnott, who was acquired prior to the trade deadline.

On defence, the Capitals boast a deep and talented core. Oft-injured Mike Green will be relied upon to contribute on the power play, while young blue-liners John Carlson and Karl Alzner will be essential in slowing the Rangers’ attack.

Neither Dennis Wideman nor Tom Poti are expected to play in game one but having either of these veterans back would be a huge boost for the Caps.

Michal Neuvirth gets the call to start the series but if the past is any indication, his leash in net may not be very long. Neuvirth finished the season strong, but there remains a strong possibility Semyon Varlamov enters the cage at some point in the series.

(8) New York Rangers

The Rangers (44-33-5) are led up front by Marian Gaborik and Brandon Dubinsky. While they lack the game-breaking forwards of Washington, the Rangers have a committee of forwards capable of contributing.

Vinny Prospal, Derek Stepan and Brian Boyle all scored 20-plus goals this year but the loss of Ryan Callahan to a broken ankle is a severe blow. They’ll need Gaborik and Dubinsky to play up to their potential in order to match the Caps top-flight performers.

New York has a talented but inexperienced blue-line. Dan Girardi and Marc Staal compose the top pairing and will likely match up against Ovechkin’s line. Bryan McCabe was acquired at the trade deadline to quarterback the power play and provide some veteran leadership.

The hopes of a Rangers upset rely solely on the back of Henrik Lundqvist. King Henrik led the NHL with 11 shutouts this year and is capable of stealing games on his own. The 29-year-old Swede posted a typically strong campaign, going 36-27-5 with a 2.28 goals-against average and .923 save percentage.

Keys to the Series

Ovechkin needs to play like his dynamic self if the Capitals have any hope of hoisting Lord Stanley’s mug in June. After a 24-point decrease from last year to this season, it’s time for AO to turn on the burners and lead his team.

After scoring 86 points in 2009-2010, Gaborik took a huge step back this season, amassing only 48 points and registering less than a point a game for the first time since 2003. The Rangers will need timely goals from their superstar, who lines up with Dubinsky and Artem Anisimov.

Schedule

Wednesday, April 13: New York at Washington, 7:30 p.m., TSN

Friday, April 15: New York at Washington, 7:30 p.m., TSN

Sunday, April 17: Washington at New York, 2:30 p.m., TSN

Wednesday, April 20: Washington at New York, 7 p.m., TSN

x-Saturday, April 23: New York at Washington, 2:30 p.m., TSN

x-Monday, April 25: Washington at New York, 7:30 p.m., TSN

x-Wednesday, April 27: New York at Washington, 7:30 p.m., TSN

x – if necessary

Predictions

Aaron Korolnek: Capitals in seven, with Semyon Varlamov between the pipes.

Jimmy Mangos: Rangers in seven

Josh Craig: Capitals in six